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 68 games the Predators are ranked 27th (out of 30 teams) in scoring at 2.48 goals per game. Last season the team finished a respectable 12th at 2.77 goals per game.
As the season began, the Predators were faced with filling several positions due to not resigning players who contributed on the scoring end last season including. Marek Zidlicky (5 goals, 38 assists), Jan Havlic (12,23), and Martin Gelinas (9,11). They were also patiently waiting for the return of Steve Sullivan, the franchise's only career point per game producer. The biggest blow to the Predators season was the sudden departure of rising star, Alexander Radulov (26,32) who left to play in the KHL in Russia.
Several players have risen to the occasion this year and increased their offensive production including Captain Jason Arnott, who is on pace to a career goal high, David Legwand and defenseman Shea Weber, who has tied the franchise record for most goals by a d-man in a season. Others like J. P. Dumont, Marty Erat and Radek Bonk have had significant fall offs in production.
With budget constraints in tight market conditions, the Predators have tried various players from within the system who have had little offensive success. The most heralded of the group was Patric Hornqvist who was a sensation playing for his native Sweden in the World Championships last May. He played the first 20 games with the Predators, scoring two goals and adding five assists, before being dispatched to the minor leagues for more seasoning.
Rookies Ryan Jones and Anti Pihlstrom, who have seen extensive playing time with the Predators, have shown flashes of brilliance at times but have not blossomed into consistent scorers. Prospects Mike Santorelli and Cal O’Reilly have had brief call-ups but were not able to replicate their all-star level performances from their Milwaukee AHL team.
The one unexpected shining star for this year’s Predators 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.
From there, Ward played three seasons with the Houston Areos AHL franchise before being released at the end of last season. He did get 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 flyer 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.
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”.
Ward’s 11 goals and 14 assists on the offensively challenged Predators team have been a huge contribution. 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.
When the team awards are handed out at season’s end, regardless of where the team finishes in the standings, Joel Ward will receive recognition for 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.
Buddy Oakes for PredsOnTheGlass and the Columbia Daily Herald