Joel Ward established himself in the NHL as a defensive-minded, two-way forward. He’s never been someone classified as a consistent offensive threat, never scored more than 17 goals or recorded more than 35 points in a season.
But that doesn’t change the reality that the Capitals and Coach Dale Hunter are looking for more from Ward, who hasn’t scored in 35 games and has just one point in his past 11 contests. On Monday in Detroit, Ward was a healthy scratch based on his performance for the first time this season.
Some of those expectations stem from the four-year deal worth $12 million that Ward, 31, inked with the Capitals as an unrestricted free agent last summer. General Manager George McPhee acknowledged at the time he overpaid to land the right wing, who made a splash in the 2011 playoffs with 13 points in 12 games.
Despite the contract, Ward said he doesn’t feel pressure to produce.
“I don’t feel pressure to do it at all. I’ve had points in the past — it’s just been different opportunities,” Ward said. “In Nashville, I got a chance to play on special teams on both sides and that was kind of helpful. So it’s been a little different in that aspect. But I don’t feel pressure at all. If I’m playing defensively sound and not giving up chances and goals and to get on the forecheck and try to create and earn pluses and help out my linemates, then I think I’m doing my job.”
But on Wednesday morning after Ward spoke with reporters, Hunter was asked if he wanted to see more offense from the forward.
“More offense,” Hunter repeated. “Wardo, we expect more from him and he knows it.”
Ward has seen his ice time and role with the Capitals ebb and flow all season long. At times he’s been a regular part of the third line in a checking role, receiving ice time in the mid- to upper teens. At other times he’s been a seldom-used forth liner who inconsistently reaches double digits in ice time. And his opportunity to play on special teams has diminished greatly.
Ward said he didn’t receive an explanation of the benching against the Red Wings, and guessed it could have simply been an effort to alter the lineup after a two-game losing streak heading into the contest.
“I don’t know,” Ward said. “We had two losses there, I guess. It’s hard to say, to pinpoint, what I did wrong, I guess.”
In 71 games this season, Ward has six goals, 18 points while averaging 12:27 of ice time per game, which is the lowest time he’s seen since emerging as an NHL regular in 2008-09.
Whether Ward will be able to contribute more in a limited role will remain to be seen once he returns to the lineup, but at the same time, he isn’t going to try to reinvent himself, either. Fundamentally he’s a defensively responsible player who can help wear down an opponent with his size when the Capitals get a chance to cycle the puck.
“I think it’s just important for me to stay focused on my details on the ice and what to do and that’s being good on the walls and getting pucks out and just playing good, two-way hockey,” Ward said. “I just try to go out there, just try to execute and make plays. For me, I’ve always been responsible in my end, so to speak, and I try to take pride in that and not give up too many chances or goals.”