Under coach Barry Trotz in Nashville, right wing Joel Ward established himself as a reliable third-line right wing capable of scoring 15 goals and logging 17 minutes of mistake-free hockey a game.
Its what earned him a four-year, 12 million contract from the Capitals over the summer.
But when Dale Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau as Caps coach on Nov. 28, Wards role diminished, along with his production and ice time.
He wasnt playing as well as he should be playing, Hunter said after Wednesdays workout at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Last night, he played with a lot of desperation, like he wanted more ice time. When people show you, you give them more.
Ward logged 13:42 of ice time, his most in 13 games, and played a key role in Tuesday nights 4-0 win over the Florida Panthers, combining with linemates Matt Hendricks and Jeff Halpern to shut down the Panthers top line of Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg.
He moved up lines and he answered the bell, Hunter said. I thought it was his best game since Ive been here. He played hard, took the body, cycled well and created chances. They created havoc against that line. It didnt do much against us. They tired out their best players.
At the start of the season, Ward played on a checking line with Jason Chimera and Brooks Laich aptly named the meat and potatoes line by Boudreau. At the time, Ward was averaging 15 minutes a game and had four goals and three assists in his first 12 games.
In 40 games since then, hes had just one goal and seven assists, and his ice time dwindled to single digits.
Hes been fighting it a little bit, said Capitals right wing Troy Brouwer, who occupies the locker stall next to Ward. You can see it. But were trying to be encouraging because we know he can contribute offensively as well.
Ward said hes trying to adjust to Hunters show-me style of coaching, something he thought he had already proven under Trotz in Nashville.
Its been different, Ward said. I never had a coaching change like that, and its been a little different. Were still grown men, and its not a big issue. I definitely have to earn my keep here and see where I fit in.
On Tuesday night, it was dumping the puck working the corners with Halpern and Hendricks, but Brouwer believes Ward has an offensive side to him that has yet to be shown to Caps fans.
I dont think weve given him enough credit as far as the offensive prowess goes, Brouwer said. Hes been put in situations for most of this season to shut down opposing teams top lines and when you do that sometimes its tough to score goals.
Ward, 31, has seen his goal totals drop from 17 in his first season in Nashville to 13 two years ago and 10 last season. This season, hes on pace for a career-low seven goals and 22 points, not exactly what the Capitals expected for a 3 million-a-year player.
Im not like an Ovi or anything, Ward said. I think its a stretch for me to score 50. I just have to play good two-way hockey.
Hunter said hell determine Wards ice time based on his play and nothing else.
Its a reward system, Hunter said. Now he has to back it up with a good game against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday again.