COMMENTARY | Joel Ward didn't take the easy path to the NHL. He wasn't a major junior sensation. He wasn't drafted when he was 18, or when he graduated college. But after grinding for his NHL career for almost five years, Ward has found a groove with the Washington Capitals with five goals and eight points in 12 games.
After his four-year junior hockey career in the OHL and a short stint with the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the West Coast Hockey League, Ward was invited to training camp with the Detroit Red Wings in 2001. However, he ended up playing collegiately for the University of Prince Edward Island Panthers.
Ward had a decorated collegiate career, earning Rookie of the Year and three MVPs while getting a degree in sociology. His performance earned him a training camp invitation from the Minnesota Wild in 2005, where he was assigned to the AHL's Houston Aeros. He remained with the Wild organization for three years, playing 11 NHL games in 2006-2007. The rest of his time was spent with the Aeros.
In 2008, Ward signed a one-year deal with the Nashville Predators. He made the opening night roster, and his NHL career was underway. He was a 28 year-old rookie.
During the 2011 playoffs, Ward broke out. He scored seven goals and recorded 13 points in 12 games for the Predators. As Nashville was being eliminated by the Vancouver Canucks, Washington was being eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
After the Capitals' unexpected sweep at the hands of the Bolts, general manager George McPhee wanted to build his team for the playoffs. Ward's impressive performance the previous spring shot him to the top of McPhee's list, and the Caps signed him to his longest, most lucrative contract yet: four years for $12 million.
Ward's 2011-2012 season was relatively uneventful with six goals and 18 points in 73 games, but Ward looked more and more comfortable with the team as the season went on. Again in the playoffs, Ward was key, scoring the series-clinching goal in overtime of game 7 against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
This season, Ward has been one of the few bright spots in the Caps' young season. He is tied for the team lead in goals, and tied for second on the team with points. The third line with Ward and Jason Chimera has been one consistent thing that head coach Adam Oates hasn't had to worry about.
Ward's NHL career has been a long time coming. At 32, it appears as though he is now finding his stride. Strong, consistent depth is key to any team's success, and Ward's contribution this season has been crucial to the Caps as the stars got off to slow starts. If the Caps miraculously make the playoffs, Ward will likely be a major reason why. After years of scrapping, it seems Ward is fitting right in.
Keara Dowd has spent years covering the Washington Capitals for multiple websites including The Hockey Writers and FanSided. She was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, where she still resides today. Follow her on Twitter @KGDowd.