When the Sharks signed Joel Ward early in the free agency period of 2015, the third and final year of that deal loomed large. Ward was 34 at the time, closer to the end of his career than his prime, and that extra year seemed risky.
That risk has been apparent this season, as Ward was scratched in five consecutive games in October. He remained a regular over the next 25, but will reportedly be scratched Thursday night against the Vancouver Canucks.
Ward’s mired in an epic slump. He has just two points, both assists, in his last 11 games, and has not scored a goal since the day before Thanksgiving.
His struggles aren’t just a product of misfortune, as it appears that age is finally catching up to him.
You wouldn’t necessarily get that impression looking at the back of his hockey card. Yes, he’s on pace for his lowest points per game since 2011-12, when he scored a career-low six goals and scored on just 7.6 percent of his shots. But, Ward’s still scored slightly more goals per game (0.15) than he did last year (0.13).
What does not bode well is that, if anything, his scoring totals are a bit inflated. Ward’s converted on an astronomical 21.1 percent of his shots this season, and only has four goals in 27 games.
His five-on-five shot rate (3.45 shots per 60 minutes, according to Corsica Hockey), shot attempt rate (8.19 per 60), and unblocked shot attempt rate (5.18 per 60) are the worst of his career. The shot rate and unblocked shot attempt rate are particularly worrisome, as he’s declined in both areas each of the last two seasons.
That’s all to say that, once his shooting percentage regresses to the mean, Ward is likely to struggle even more offensively since he isn’t generating as many chances. Given that he won’t play against the Canucks, the Sharks seem at least somewhat aware of this fact.
Ward’s decline is completely understandable given his age, and was an understood risk when the Sharks signed him to a three-year deal. He was remarkably productive in his first season in teal, scoring 43 points as a 35-year-old, but hasn’t been the same player as he’s gotten older.
But even as his decline is apparent, Ward will likely still have a role to play on this team, if only out of necessity. He has a modified no-trade clause, and likely isn’t going anywhere unless he agrees to waive it and the Sharks retain some salary.
He remains a valuable veteran voice in the locker room, and should still be relied upon for his leadership. The Sharks, though, may not be able to count on much more than that, and should not have expected otherwise.