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Ward's departure leaves hole in Caps locker room

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Ward's departure leaves hole in Caps locker room

In a span of two days, the Capitals locker room lost a pair of “glue guys” who were brought to Washington to help change the culture of a fractured locker room.

On Friday night, about 24 hours after Troy Brouwer was traded to the St. Louis Blues, veteran right wing Joel Ward signed a three-year, $9.825 million contract with the San Jose Sharks.

And just like that, the Caps’ locker room became something less than it was before.

Caps 21-year-old right wing Tom Wilson expressed his gratitude for Ward with a tweet that read: “Can't begin to describe what @JRandalWard42 did for me my first two years. You'll be missed Big Cheese, good luck.”

From the day the Caps’ season ended on May 13, Ward said he wanted to return to Washington. But when his agent, Peter Cooney, requested a four-year extension for the 34-year-old winger, the Caps refrained.

So did 29 other NHL teams.

MORE CAPITALS: Joel Ward reportedly signs with new team out West

When 48 hours passed and Ward was still remaining on the unrestricted free agent market, it became clear he would not be signing a four-year contract. The Sharks had shown interest from the start, led by head coach Peter DeBoer, who coached against Ward in juniors and got to know him better when they teamed up for Team Canada at the 2014 World Championships.

“I had a few conversations with him just about where I felt he would fit, and how important I thought what he brought to the table was for our group here in San Jose,” DeBoer said.

“When I got a chance to talk to Pete, that really helped sway me of being in a good situation,” said Ward, who had been in contact with about a dozen NHL teams, according to Cooney. “There was a group that wanted me, which is always good to feel loved, as they say.”

It’s a safe bet that whatever love Ward receives from the Sharks he’ll give it right back. His presence in the Capitals’ locker room was undeniably infectious, a hard-working, fun-loving teammate who appreciated everything hockey had given him, despite the loss of his father as a teenager.

“I love playing the game,” Ward said on a conference call with reporters. “I love going to the rink. I’m sure any of my former teammates can tell you I enjoy hanging out with the guys. Just come with a good attitude every day. I just want to win like everybody else does. It makes it a lot easier when you’re in a group that is trying to achieve the same goal as you.”

While Ward scored 43 goals in his last two seasons with the Caps, he built his reputation in the post-season, where he tied with Alex Ovechkin for the team lead in playoff points last season with nine. In his eight-year career with the Wild, Predators and Capitals, Ward averaged .43 points per game in the regular season and .66 points per game in the playoffs.

In 2012, he scored the Game 7 overtime goal in Boston to give the Caps a first-round victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins. He also netted the game-winner with 1.3 seconds remaining in Game 1 against the Rangers this spring.

“If you look at who’s going to show up for the playoffs you look right at Joel Ward,” said Caps veteran left wing Jason Chimera, who finished fourth on the club in playoff scoring with seven points and considers Ward his closest friend. “You have people that can play in the regular season and you have people that step up. A lot of people stepped up, but he’s got that uncanny ability to score big goals at big moments. Not everyone has that, but he does.”

“I think I just love the challenge of playoffs,” Ward said. “Who doesn’t? Hostile environments on the road, everybody’s all over you. … I just go out there and sometimes I’m just fortunate to crack a few in.”

DeBoer reiterated what Barry Trotz and the coaches in Washington already know about Ward.

“What I like best about him is he plays a man’s game,” DeBoer said. “He goes to the blue paint and scores in the dirty areas where the goals come at the toughest time of year. There’s a reason he has success in the playoffs. So, we’re excited to have that element.”

 

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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

Tuesday’s practice was a lot like every other for the Caps until the end. After working on the power play, the team gathered at one end of the ice and began working on faceoffs. It was not just the centers, but wingers and defensemen alike got into the action with every win celebrated by loud cheers from teammates.

It should could as no surprise to see faceoffs as a point of emphasis for Washington considering just how much the team has struggled with them in the early season. The Caps rank 30th in the league in faceoff win percentage at only 43.8-percent.

“Yeah, there's little details that can help our game,” Lars Eller told reporters after practice. “The more you have the puck, easier the game is gonna be for you. We have a little more time in between games than usual during the season here, so we have the time to work on something like that, which can be little things that makes the difference.”

The team as a whole watched video on faceoffs prior to practice and then worked as a five-man unit during the drill. The main point of emphasis head coach Todd Reirden wanted to drill into his players was that faceoffs are not simply the responsibility of the centers alone.

“The days of it just being center vs. center and a clean draw being won back are a rarity now so it's important to have all five guys helping, something we watched video on earlier today,” Reirden said.

“You ask any centerman if they have a good group of wingers that can help them out on draws, that makes a huge difference,” Nic Dowd said. “I've been lucky, I have [Devante Smith-Pelly] on my right and I'm a righty so I win all my draws my backhand side so a lot of pucks go his way and he wins a lot of draws for me. That's huge. You have a guy that's sitting over there that's sleeping, you could go easily from five wins to five losses and then that's your night. It makes a big difference.”

Faceoffs were always going to be more of a struggle for the Caps this season with the departure of Jay Beagle who was, by far, the team’s best faceoff man for several years. Whenever the team needed a big draw, Beagle was the player relied upon to win it. With him gone, it is no surprise to see the team struggle.

But the Caps don’t like the idea of keeping possession off a draw just 43.8-percent of the time.

“It's essentially like the ref is creating a 50-50 puck and you snap it back, you get possession, now you're forechecking and it makes a huge difference,” Dowd said. “You play against those top lines, they want to be in the O-zone. Well, if you lose the draw, now you're playing D-zone, you win the draw now you're playing O-zone. So effectively, you've shut down their shift.”

There is a school of thought suggesting that perhaps the importance of winning faceoffs is overrated and a team’s faceoff win percentage is not overly important. Eller himself admitted as much to reporters.

What no one can argue, however, is that while some faceoffs may not matter all that much, there are some that are hugely important in a game. The Caps recognize that. For them, being a strong faceoff team is not necessarily about improving the team’s win percentage, but more about being able to win those critical draws.

“It's something that for the most part the players understand and a neutral zone faceoff with 14 minutes to go in the first period is not nearly as important as one that's 5-on-6 at the end of the game,” Reirden said. “We all know that. It's important to put the right people on those situations and give them the best chance to have success.”

“A center ice draw, I could see where guys could make the argument, well you lose it you still will play hockey and stuff could still happen,” Dowd said. “But I think the game is such a possession game now that any opportunity you can win a 50-50 puck whether that's a faceoff or a board battle, it makes a huge difference.”

 

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

Like it or not, the NHL is becoming younger, louder, and more personable. And as its young stars begin to gain leadership positions, the demand from a younger subset of fans grows larger: Make hockey fun again. Let players have personality on the ice and off, be it through social media engagement, game-day fashion, or creative goal celebrations.

Some say that hockey was always fun. True, to an extent. 

Minute per game minute, you arguably can’t find a faster, more action-packed major sport. But among the North American leagues, and internationally, the NBA still dominates on Twitter activity and in its social media. 

One of the biggest factors that helped basketball succeed in the social age wasn’t the NHL’s commonly preached conformity.

The NBA found huge success in marketing its star players as larger-than-life, letting them have public personas that tied into larger, richer narratives spanning careers, teams, and decades.

Superstar Auston Matthews, the up-and-coming 21-year-old face of American hockey, has taken note, citing NBA star Russell Westbrook’s individuality as a source of inspiration in a recent GQ feature

He’s well met by former USA National Team Development Program teammates Jack Eichel, who was recently named captain of the Buffalo Sabres; Dylan Larkin, Detroit’s hometown darling who’s stepping up as an assistant captain for the Red Wings; and Matthew Tkachuk, who’s also wearing an A in Calgary.

It’s not only the born and bred American youngsters who are ready to stand out. The team responsible for the resurgence of the debate about how much fun is too much is none other than the Washington Capitals, whose summer celebrations led to the ban of the legendary Cup Stand.

Though the publicity of their championship celebrations was revolutionary, the Capitals hold more promise in amount of fun per sixty. After a title win, their petty grudges are only transforming into a bold sense of self-confidence.

Alex Ovechkin is already a superstar on a mission to grab the attention of all the boys and girls and babes in the hockey world. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s interviews and celebrations reveal a player growing into the spotlight, ready to embrace a downright devious kind of skill against his opponents. Braden Holtby is already a league-recognized style icon whose meticulously chosen plaid suits and well-groomed beard have woven into the hype of game-day coverage. And Nicklas Backstrom is finally smiling on-camera.

(This isn’t even mentioning highly polarizing figure Tom Wilson, whose aggressive approach on the ice has earned him the marking of a player everyone hates unless he’s on their team.)

If the NHL wants to appeal to new viewers, it can gain ground by marketing its stars outside of a bland, monotone mold for success. 

With high-scoring, chaotically delightful games that happen almost every night all across the continent, an audience needs something to anchor them.

Individuality isn’t a bad place to start.

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