Joel Ward and Reasonable Expectations

When winger Joel Ward signed with Washington last summer, Caps General Manager George McPhee assessed the contract he'd just handed out as an overpayment of 15% or so, no doubt a product of the nature of free agency itself, as well as a bump for a stellar playoff run the spring before. But when you've got your eyes on a player as a "final piece to the puzzle" big-game type, what's a few hundred thousand bucks per season, anyway?

Things haven't gone as planned for Ward or the Caps this season, and in many ways, Ward has personified the ups and downs of the team overall. Like the team, Ward started out hot as a house afire (the Caps roared out of the gates to a 7-0-0 record; Ward had four goals and three assists in his first dozen games while playing predominantly on a tremendously successful shutdown line). Like the team, Ward's discipline slipped some thereafter (the Caps' play got sloppy and downright bad; Ward overslept and missed a team meeting, earning himself a healthy scratch). And like the team, Ward has struggled a bit with consistency and identity (the formerly run-and-gun Caps are still trying to find their way under Dale Hunter; Ward has seen his ice time and role reduced, and has recently been healthy-scratched, this time for his play).

And that's where we are now - while the Caps are playing their most important games of the season as they try to cling to a playoff spot, one of the players they brought in because he ostensibly was "able to raise the level of [his] game in the tough games" sat the last one out, coach's decision.

Granted, that was just one game, and one which the Caps managed to win. Still, the rationale behind the benching was even more curious than the benching itself. When asked about the decision on Wednesday, Hunter said, "[W]e expect more from him and he knows it." More what, exactly? "More offense." Is that a reasonable expectation? We'll take a look after the jump.

Ward has six goals and twelve assists in 71 games on the season. That's fewer goals than he had in a dozen games in last year's playoffs, and easily on pace to be his least-productive full season as an NHLer. Sure, those totals are disappointing, but much less so when you realize that he's actually producing goals, primary assists and points at a higher rate at five-on-five this year than he did last year. And that five of his ten regular season goals (and two of seven in the playoffs) in 2010-11 came on the power-play, meaning that he has more even-strength tallies this season than he had a year ago (when he spent 1:30 per game on the power play, as opposed to 2011-12's eight seconds per outing).

In fairness to Hunter, he hasn't been witness to much of Ward's production this season; since the Caps switched bench bosses, Ward has just two goals and ten points in 50 games. But Hunter has also cut Ward's ice time (down from roughly 12.5 minutes per game under Bruce Boudreau to just under 11.75), so what sort of output is realistic for Hunter to expect? Take those minutes, multiply them by an 82-game season and you get 963.5 total minutes. Know what the average point production for a player who played less than 964 minutes but at least 70 games last year was? 6.7 goals, 9.7 assists (and that includes players with decent power-play time; Ed. note: hat tip to Neil Greenberg for pointing me in this direction). Ward's 82-game pace under Hunter? 3.3 goals, 13.1 assists. So Hunter could reasonably expect three more goals and three fewer assists in the minutes he's given Ward. Uh huh. Even if you "expect more" out of Ward based on his salary or his playoff performance or his skill-set... how much more?

It's become a chicken-or-the-egg issue, of course - Ward didn't produce, so he lost ice time, and it's harder to produce given fewer minutes and less-skilled linemates. But really, arguing over Joel Ward's offensive production misses the forest for the trees. Joel Ward is a defense-first forward, and a damn good one. If it's true that a goal-prevented is equal to a goal-scored (and it's not - no one ever won a game zero to negative one, but just go with it), Joel Ward has been one of the top skaters on the Caps this season, posting the best five-on-five goal differential and plus-minus, while facing relatively tough competition (though he can handle tougher). The point of the game is still to outscore your opponent, whether by increasing your offense or suppressing the opponent's (or some combination of the two), no?

All of this is to say that there are plenty of Caps from whom "more offense" should be expected, but Joel Ward isn't necessarily one of them, certainly not if "more" implies anything substantial. If Dale Hunter expects more from Ward and wants to maximize the Caps' return on investment in the forward, he should play him more: more minutes, harder minutes, penalty-killing minutes, you name it. The goals will come. Or they won't. It doesn't really matter much, because Joel Ward makes the Caps tougher to play against... and that's something we all expected more of back in July.

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