As the Nashville Predators approached the 2008-2009 season it was painfully obvious that the team was short on experience and needed additional bodies at the scoring positions. Through 72 games the Predators are ranked 25th (out of 30 teams) in scoring at 2.50 goals per game. Last season the team finished a respectable 12th at 2.77 goals per game.
The Predators, to everyone’s surprise, have done a complete turn around since early February, rising from fourteenth place to eighth. Much can be credited to the return of Steve Sullivan who has sparked the offense as he has returned to his pre-injury point a game pace over the last 20 games.
One unexpected and unheralded shining star for this year’s Predators team has been Joel Ward, a 28 year old winger from North York, Ontario. The 6’1” 220 pounder has been a career minor leaguer who suddenly blossomed into a key two-way player for this year’s team.
Ward has taken an unusual route to the National Hockey League. After a four year junior hockey career, he attended the University of Prince Edward Island, a school that has only sent three alumni to the NHL. The Atlantic University Sport League, in which UPEI competes is also not known for quality talent.
From there, Ward played three seasons with the Houston Areos AHL franchise before being released at the end of last season. He did have a brief uneventful call up to the Minnesota Wild in 2006 but was sent back to the minors after eleven games.
General Manager David Poile of the Predators took a flier on Ward and signed him to a free agent contract last July when all the top name free agents had been signed by other teams. Ward came to the Pred’s camp in September and impressed everyone with his hard work and positive attitude. He easily made the Predator squad and has steadily improved his game as the season has progressed. Over the last few weeks, with injuries to Jason Arnott and Radek Bonk, Ward has risen to a new level of importance on this Predator squad.
Ward’s 15 goals and 15 assists on the offensively challenged Predators team have been a huge contribution. During last week’s critical trip to the West coast, Ward was the offensive star scoring four goals and adding an assist. He is also sixth in the league in shots blocked at the forward position and has maintained a positive plus/minus rating throughout the season.
While not the original answer to the scoring question that the Predators were looking for, Ward has been a versatile player that has played on all four lines, has been a stalwart on the penalty kill unit, and is one of the few on the Predators team that has the ability to maintain position in front of the offensive net, in what Barry Trotz calls “the hard places”.
If the Predators hold on to their eight place position and make the playoffs, Joel Ward will be one of the key reasons due to his solid two-way play, being the hardest worker on the ice, and for being a great team player to have in the locker room. Sometimes great things happen to good people as has been the case for Joel Ward this season.
Preds vs Ducks Tonight's game with the Anaheim Ducks visiting Nashville will be a true test for the injury ridden Predators. When the puck drops, being inside the playoff picture will be on the line as the Ducks are one point behind the eight place Preds. The game is a critical test for both teams in the crowded Western Conference playoff picture.
The Predators are expecting the return of Radek Bonk from an upper body injury. Ryan Jones suffered an off ice injury and is considered day to day but will miss the game against the Ducks. Captain Jason Arnott and Wade Belak will also be out with no official time frame for return.
With the injuries and the tough schedule remaining, the deck appears stacked against the Preds to make their fifth straight playoff appearance, but for Barry Trotz that scenario seems a familiar time for him to pull yet another rabbit out of his hat.
Buddy Oakes for PredsOnTheGlass and The Columbia Daily Herald
Note: If a portion of this article seems somewhat familier you will receive a reward for paying attention. I actually rewrote and updated an article from about ten days ago publication in The Daily Herald to bring more of a focus on Joel Ward. Who can argue with more Joel Ward, eh?