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.
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.”