Joel Ward’s fourth head coach in four seasons happens to be an old friend, so when the forward arrived at the team’s practice facility for its annual offseason blood drive on Saturday afternoon, he came as the unofficial liaison for Barry Trotz, the player who best knows what makes the new bench boss tick.
“I think now I’ve got to tell some guys a few things,” Ward said, laughing, even though he already had. “It’s definitely been a good relationship in the past and hopefully keep that going. Definitely I can always teach a few guys some of the tendencies and some of the things that we’ve done back in Nashville that I’m sure he’ll carry over.”
Before signing a four-year deal with the Capitals in 2011, Ward cracked into the NHL with the Nashville Predators, spending three full seasons under Trotz, who was at the time the only head coach in franchise history and a local institution for the small-market squad. Sure, he had spent 11 games with the Minnesota Wild in 2006-07, but Trotz and the Predators saw something special in a 28-year-old rookie.
Years later, Trotz and Ward are reuniting in Washington, together two cogs in an organizational “refresh,” as everyone here has begun calling it, coming off a disappointing postseason miss and, as Ward lamented, yet another change.
“I was a little upset with the fact that we had to change coaches again,” he said. “You try to gain a rapport with one and you try to build off that. Again, it’s definitely a good sign to have somebody that I knew a little bit. Hopefully he thinks I got better since then and we keep going from there.”
Trotz would certainly agree, given the career-highs Ward registered across the board in 2013-14. One of the brightest spots in a roller-coaster season, the right winger finished with 24 goals, 25 assists and 49 points in 82 games. In Ward’s five prior NHL seasons, he had never cracked 35 points.
With the Capitals last season, more than 83 percent of Ward’s five-on-five ice time was spent with Jason Chimera, a top-20 ranking in the NHL per ExtraSkater, and though his Corsi-for percentage (47.7) fell in line with Washington’s puck possessions struggles, both Ward and the forward he called “my twin” were markedly better together than in the limited sample size of being apart.
So what, now, does Ward set his sights upon for a second act, in the final year of his contract?
“Score 50 [goals],” he deadpanned. “For me, I had a good opportunity last year. Had some power play which was helpful, just getting some confidence.
“I can’t really worry about it too much. I think when you start worry about stats and whatnot, then I think you might lose focus. I think the main thing for me is just going out there and trying to work hard and play good defense in my own zone first. If I’m with Chimer again, obviously I know his tendencies and just chip it off the wall and let him skate and keep it moving.”
Better than any Capitals player, Ward also knows what to expect from Trotz. Foremost, he said, his teammates should expect an increased attention to fundamentals and hockey’s minutiae.
“Barry’s just detailed,” Ward said. “It’s simple. Very detailed guy. He’s a big family guy, great family. I think he’s going to make sure we’re going to be close together, close as a unit on and off the ice. But on ice I expect us to be a lot more detailed. You’ll get a sense of that I think right away of guys having to do some homework at times.
“Again, it’s going to be fun, though. At the same time it’s going to be a hard-working team. From my years of experience in Nashville it was, we weren’t the most talented team on paper but we always found a way of just being hard-working and earning our grit in points. I expect us to do that here. Hopefully it turns into a more positive side and get in the playoffs and to the big dance and down the road hopefully being in the finals.”
With immediate offseason plans of donating blood at Kettler Capitals Iceplex – and overarching ones of training back home in Toronto while attending Blue Jays games – Ward seemed as relaxed as always, introducing himself to the small crowd of reporters who gathered, comfortable in the familiarity of the new regime.
“I think it’s positive,” he said. “Obviously it’s a lot of information. We’re big boys. We’ve played in different systems and all sorts of things. I think guys know that. It’s just a matter of pretty much paying attention and getting out there and just executing.”
>> Here are two more quotes from Ward, first on Washington’s offseason signings of defenseman Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, and second on how he views the challenge before Trotz of inheriting a team rich in offensive playmakers.
On Niskanen and Orpik: “It’s definitely helpful on the back end. Congrats to them on good deals. I think we just got way better on the back end, for sure. That’s just going to help us create more offense in the offensive zone by getting out a little faster in our own zone. Excited to meet the guys. I briefly swapped texts with them. It’s always a good time to meet new guys and new teammates.”
On Trotz: “I never thought Barry was a defensive-minded guy. I just thought there was a lot of detail. You want to be good in your own end. I don’t think he’s, as people call him, a quote-unquote defensive-minded guy. I just think it was detail up and down the ice. We have to get out of our own zone a little better and be strong on our back end. I’m looking forward to guys obviously like [Alex Ovechkin], [Nicklas Backstrom], I’m sure that’s going to be a few new guys for him, fun for sure, more excitement and fun for us.”
>> Defenseman Dmitry Orlov, who had left wrist surgery this offseason, arrived at Kettler still sporting a cast. He hurt the wrist during the IIHF World Championships in Russia and had surgery on May 22. He was scheduled to have the cast removed once returning stateside, but evidently that procedure has not happened yet. During Capitals development camp, Trotz said he expected Orlov to return “right around training camp or just right into it.”
“Usually what I find, and just out of doing this for 17 years, doctors have a time frame and they’re very conservative time frames, but realistically, probably 90 percent of the time, the time frame is shortened,” Trotz said then about Orlov, who was not made available to the media Saturday. “Their time frames are for us mortals who aren’t athletes. These guys train, they get the best, their bodies are machines. They heal quicker. They’ve got more resources to do that, from trainers to rehab to all that. They seem to recover a lot quicker than the timeframe. But I understand we have the timeframe and let’s be on the conservative side.”
Forward Evgeny Kuznetsov also recently posted an Instgram picture indicating he was headed to Washington, so slowly the Capitals players are trickling into town.
>> According to the team, the Joel Ward bobblehead scheduled to be given to blood donors got delayed in U.S. Customs so the Capitals offered two upper-level preseason tickets, a coffee cup and a redeemable voucher for said bobblehead as consolation. Jokes were also made about the bobbleheads actually being stuck in a bathroom stall.
In the interest of bobblehead journalism, this isn’t the first time U.S. Customs has hindered a bobblehead shipment to the Capitals. Braden Holtby’s was delayed because his long goalie stick kept breaking during shipment, and during the latest blood drive last February, the Backstrom bobblehead was also held, attributed to both Customs and “winter weather challenges.”