Viewed through the lens of his previous three seasons, Joel Ward’s 2016-17 campaign was a bit of a disappointment. He scored less than 30 points for the first time in a regular length season since 2010-11, and scored less than 19 goals for the first time since 2011-12.
Yet, it was probably naive to expect Ward to maintain that level of play. After all, Ward’s last three seasons were atypical given what we know about player aging: players rarely have their best three-season-stretch at in their early-to-mid-30s as Ward had done.
Plus, he scored on the third-highest percentage of shots of his career last season (15.2%), and experienced pretty significant regression this season scoring on the third-lowest percentage of shots this season (9.5%). Couple that with some bad luck on the power play (6.15 on-ice SH%, second-lowest of any Shark, minimum 50 5v4 minutes) leading to a decline in power play points (12 last season, three this season), and you’ve got the makings of a down year.
Aging and luck are important factors to consider in a year-to-year decline, yet Ward’s season was often framed as a disappointment, especially as he was scratched twice in a three-game span in mid-December. Teammates Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton are the exceptions, not the rules, for how players age.
Ward’s beaten the odds his whole career. He went undrafted, played Canadian college hockey, turned an AHL contract into an NHL shot with Minnesota, and established himself as a top-9 forward in his late 20s.
But, expecting him to fight off the decline that comes with aging, which ultimately affects the vast majority of players was unreasonable. Eventually, those odds catch up with you, and they began to catch up to Ward this season.
2016-17 Sharks 5v5 Usage Chart (via Corsica Hockey)
ZSR: Zone Start Ratio; The percentage of non-neutral zone starts that are offensive zone starts (OZS/(OZS + DZS))
TOI.QoT: Time On Ice Quality of Teammates; The weighted average TOI% of a player’s teammates
Rel.CF%: Individual corsi-for percentage subtracted by the team’s overall corsi-for percentage.
Joel Ward Rolling 25-game score, zone, and venue-adjusted average CF% (via Corsica Hockey)
Player Hero Chart (via Own The Puck)
San Jose signed Ward two summers ago in large part because of his postseason prowess, and the 36-year-old forward did not disappoint in the first round against Edmonton. Ward tied for the team lead in playoff scoring with four points, and jump-started the Sharks’ come-from-behind win in Game 1 with this power play goal in the second period.
Say what you will about Ward’s regular season, but he absolutely brought it during the postseason.
What comes next?
Ward’s signed for one more season for $3.275 million, and could be exposed in June’s expansion draft. If Ward goes unclaimed, he’ll still be a useful player for San Jose, especially if he gets a bit more puck luck next season.
But even with a little more luck, it’s not wise to expect Ward to automatically regain his 2015-16 form. He’ll still be a valuable veteran presence in the locker room, but very well could be surpassed on the depth chart as Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc continue to develop.
He’ll still likely be, at worst, a fourth line forward for San Jose if younger players outplay him. The Sharks have plenty of cap space (currently over $15 million if the cap rises to $75.5 million as projected), but could look to move the veteran if he (or the team) takes a significant step back, or if general manager Doug Wilson looks to “reset” the team as he did during the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign.
Still, Ward’s contract isn’t going to break the bank, and even if he’s passed on the depth chart, San Jose will likely be better with a declining Ward in the lineup in a fourth line role than with him out of it.