I joked on Twitter last night that Joel Ward (two goals last night, seven these playoffs) has joined Sean Bergenheim in this spring's Druce is Loose! Club. (For the young or uninitiated: John Druce was an obscure Washington 4th-liner who exploded for 14 goals in 15 playoff games in 1990.) Each spring seems to have its Druces who come out of nowhere through the magic of randomness in small samples.
Just recalling playoffs over the last decade: In 2008 R.J. Umberger had 10 playoff goals. In 2004 Ruslan Fedotenko famously scored 12, tied with more heralded teammate Brad Richards. Defenseman Ed Jovanovski had seven goals in 2003, as did Wes Walz. Chris "clutch" Drury had 11 in 2001. In 2000, Scott Young scored six goals in six games while shooting at 40%. (Note: Pierre Turgeon was his center.) You get the idea.
In truth, I find Ward far more exciting and useful than I remember Druce to be. (Still, you had to be there that spring for Druce's wild ride. The goals. Just. Kept. Coming.) If you don't watch the Predators much -- and I assume you don't -- Ward is fun to watch for his speed, his tenacity, and all those "go to the corners, go to the net" good-habit cliches we like about unsung hockey players. But there is a particular attribute about Ward that could make him an attractive free agent this summer, and it has nothing to do with his modest goal scoring.
Ward has 40 goals in 241 NHL games. He had just 10 this season. His goals per year trajectory is actually headed downward, from 17 to 13 to 10 in full seasons.
(For what it's worth, Ward's career playoff totals are now up to 16 points in 17 career games. I am very wary of "clutch" and "playoff performer" labels, but I do believe certain well-rounded players are more likely to succeed in repeated battles against top-half teams. Ward may very well prove to be such a player.)
But it's not the goals; it's the assignments. For the past two seasons Ward has been deployed in the toughest forward minutes on the Predators and among the toughest roles in the league, while still keeping his line above water. That helps everyone on the team. The margin by which he leads Preds QualComp categories is pretty significant, so this is no fluke. He's in their top four of penalty killing forwards with 1:52 of PK time per game.
If you were the Islanders GM, you could fancy Ward slotting alongside Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner to
make continue a dynamite two-way line. It may seem odd to move Kyle Okposo from that line for a 10-goal guy given how well Okposo worked with them. But if you picture Okposo as more of a scorer or two-way aid to either John Tavares or Josh Bailey, then it might make sense to free him up for such roles without hurting that line, at least not hurting it much.
Alternatively, Ward would make the Islanders forward depth better, period.
An Unknown Market for an Interesting Player
Now, this is not an advocacy piece for Garth Snow to chase Ward, although if it happened I sure wouldn't cry seeing him in blue and orange. (Like I said, he's a fun player to watch.)
Rather, it's a reflection on this turn of events that has suddenly made Ward's free agency more interesting than your average role player. (I find Bergenheim's pending UFA equally interesting, although I expect teams to value Ward higher.)
On the one hand, Ward's playoff outburst makes him a superficially hotter commodity -- just imagine if he scores another goal or two Monday. On the other hand, I think more and more GM offices are understanding the value of players beyond hockey card stats. They should already be eyeing Ward (and perhaps Bergenheim), but it wouldn't be for the goals. So I don't expect many GMs are suddenly ready to open a bidding war for Ward's services just because of a hot few weeks.
And yet, as Glen Sather has shown year after year, it only takes one.
And therein lies the intrigue: You need good players and depth to have a good hockey club. Ward is such a player. However, in a capped and/or team budget world, you also cannot afford to overpay players like Ward, at least not by much. An unrestricted free agent is almost by definition going to be overpaid -- otherwise they'd stay put -- so it's just a question of how much. Ward's cap hit was $1.5 million this past season. How much higher would you go for 10+ goals from a tough minutes winger?
Returning to the Islanders' situation, I submit that Ward would immediately upgrade their forward corps by bumping your victim of choice out of the top 12 or top 9. But here you have a team rebuilding on some form of internal fiscal budget that will be giving raises to Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo and others this summer, as well as John Tavares next summer.
To put it in another context, only five Islanders forwards had bigger cap hits than Ward's this past season -- and one was Trent Hunter on a long-term deal that bought out several UFA years, while three others were ELCs. I've long argued that this is where the rebuild gets more complicated, because all of your undermarket finds and restricted young talent can be undermined by just one or two bad contracts.
As a late bloomer who turns 31 next winter -- he played four years at the University of Prince Edward Island, for heaven's sake -- Ward is a fan favorite in Nashville. So he might simply elect to stay with the team that gave him his first shot. Unless some team breaks the bank to get him to move. Some team that can afford to do so ... for a defensive winger?