ARLINGTON, VA — Joel Ward(notes) arrived at the Washington Capitals' practice facility in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday while the team's Rookie Development Camp was ongoing; as a group of young players attempted to hone their craft, learn the game, make an impression and, hopefully, get to the place where Joel Ward has arrived.
Ward turned three productive years (and four seasons total) as a right wing with the Nashville Predators, as well as an outstanding 2011 postseason of 13 points in 12 games, into a 4-year, $12 million free-agent contract with the Capitals.
It's that playoff success, and his physical game, that made him an attractive option on the open market for a team that has failed to advance past the second round in the Eastern Conference despite a string of division titles.
"In the playoffs, it's a lot of grind game. A lot of wear and tear. Your top scorers on both sides are cancelling out. So you need your back end to fill in, and you can tell that with guys like myself and Brouwer and others that it's going to be a grind game. Keep pucks in our own zone and wear out the other team," he said.
That's the role he envisions with the team, and it's a vision his coach was ready to hear him pitch.
Coach Bruce Boudreau said his interactions with newly acquired free agents are informal at this point in the offseason.
"It's me saying, 'Hi … any questions? How are you doing? What can we do this summer to help you out? Where do you think you fit in? Where do we think you fit in?'" said Boudreau.
Establishing those preliminary expectations are important, said Boudreau.
"I always want to listen to what they say. Sometimes the players think — and I'm not saying Joel's this way — but sometimes the players think their role is different than they anticipated," he said.
"When I was in the [East Coast Hockey League] I'd sign a guy out of college and he'd think he was a top 3 forward that's going to score 40 goals, and I think he's just a checker. But it's great to know what they think. It's a whole getting-to-know-you process."
For example: Ice time.
Ward earned the second-most ice time with the Predators last season among forwards, skating 17 minutes and 4 seconds on average, right behind center Mike Fisher(notes) (18:22). He played on the power play and shorthanded.
Boudreau said that's part of the adjustment for a new addition. The coach pointed to Jason Chimera(notes) as an example of a player who skated over 16 minutes a night for the Columbus Blue Jackets before seeing that ice time cut to just over 13 minutes on average after coming to the Capitals.
For Ward, it's all part of a game he's spent the last 14 years understanding better at each level.
Like the young players on the ice at development camp, Ward had to learn plenty about his game, and the game itself, before excelling in the NHL. The Toronto native played four years in the OHL, then four in Canadian college hockey and then three with the Minnesota Wild's AHL affiliate in Houston. It was there that he said former NHL coach Kevin Constantine enlightened him and put him on a path to the NHL.
"He taught me how to play the game properly. How to play in the National Hockey League. He sat me down, broke down hockey. Not to just go out there to play it or watch it on TV, but how to properly watch hockey," said Ward.
A student of the game, Ward said his expectations are in focus for his new gig with the Capitals.
"I'm not going to go out there and score 50 goals," he said. "[Boudreau] talked briefly about what's going to happen. It's no secret for me. I know what I have to do.
"I just told him I'm excited to be part of the team. Slot me in wherever."