As he prepared for his first season as Capitals coach last year, Adam Oates approached right wing Joel Ward about increasing his role.
“We need production,” Oates recalled telling Ward. “We need you to help the other guys out. We need you to be a goal-scoring threat.”
Washington’s coaching staff began relying heavily on the burly winger, featuring him more prominently and trusting him with newfound responsibility on the Capitals’ special-teams units.
Ward took to it with aplomb, and the process to get him more involved has seeped into this season. The 33-year-old has taken advantage of his opportunities, having already tied his career-high with 17 goals, three more than he had in his first two seasons in Washington combined.
“I think any time you can get secondary scoring from anywhere, it’s definitely beneficial for the team,” Ward said.
A key step in Ward’s evolution came at the request of the detail-oriented Oates, who recommended that Ward shorten his stick by a significant amount to make it easier for him to shoot in tight areas and get off a quicker release.
The change has complemented the 6-foot-1, 226-pound Ward well. His game is predicated on making plays in high-traffic areas along the boards and in front of the net. Without a longer reach to depend on, he has used his size more to his advantage. As a result, his positioning offensively as well as defensively has improved.
“With a shorter stick, it allows me to be at certain areas a little bit quicker,” said Ward, who has four goals in his past three games. “You’re forced to move your feet more and that’s been helpful for sure. It’s been rejuvenating.”
Oates has been pleased with Ward’s development thus far, though he is quick to point out that the process is ongoing.
“He’s a guy that has to understand that he’s a big body with good skills,” Oates said. “I expect you to take it to the net and be around that net and get rebounds like he got [Sunday in the Capitals’ 6-5 overtime win over the Red Wings].
“Once you become a goal scorer, then you crave it. That’s what I want him to want.”