Former Predator Ward represents tricky lesson in NHL economics

Washington Capitals right wing Joel Ward left the Nashville Predators to sign a four-year, $12 million contract in 2011.

Kelvin Kuo/Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

When the Washington Capitals awarded Joel Ward a four-year, $12-million contract in 2011, it seemed like an outrageous sum at the time.

Ward was coming off a regular season in which he scored 10 goals in 80 games. However, significantly, he also was the Nashville Predators’ leading playoff scorer (both in goals with seven and points with 13 in 12 games) in what was, at the time, the franchise’s most successful season in its history, as the Predators advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

In terms of annual salary, the deal represented a 100-percent increase over Ward’s previous salary. The length of the contract also was twice as many years as Ward’s last contract in Nashville.

Washington, in large part, gave Ward the contract because he represented everything that the Predators’ organization wants in a player and the Capitals wanted those traits, as well: character (on and off the ice), determination, two-way play. While in Nashville, Ward mentored a young man whom the Predators have continued to support in terms of helping him find part-time employment.

As fate would have it, Ward is having a career season. The right wing entered Sunday’s meeting with the Predators with 22 goals, tied for second on the Capitals but a sum that would make him the Predators’ leading goal-scorer. He averages 16:10 per game in time on ice and is on Washington’s second power-play and penalty-killing units.

The affection that Predators coach Barry Trotz still has for Ward was evident on Sunday.

"I’m not going to lie to you, I actually watch the old Predators," Trotz said. "I’m always interested in the old Predators because there’s relationships there. I do watch Joel Ward. He’s having a terrific year. I think he’s a very important piece for the Caps. He’s an important piece offensively for them but also defensively. He plays in every situation. He moves around, he fixes whatever the problem is, the same as he did here. He’s one of those guys that coaches appreciate. I can’t speak for (Capitals coach Adam Oates), but he’d probably say the same thing. Those guys are pretty valuable on a hockey team."

Now contrast Ward with a player to whom the Predators gave almost an identical contract (four years, $12 million) last summer, Viktor Stalberg. Stalberg, who was expected to score in the neighborhood of 20 goals or more, has eight goals with seven games remaining, tying him for 11th on the team. Lately, he has been relegated to the fourth line. He averages 12:51 per game (20th on the team), doesn’t kill penalties and he rarely gets power play time.

If there is a lesson here, as hard as it might be to stomach at times, it is that NHL salaries are ever inflationary. What seems like a terrible contract three years ago looks like a bargain today. If it’s worth investing in any player, a character player would seem to be the ones to go with.

And the situation doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon. Predictions are now say that the NHL’s salary cap for 2014-15 is going to be about $70 million, an increase of almost 10 percent.

With more and more players locked up on long-term deals, fewer and fewer players are available each July when the free agency period begins. That only serves to push players’ salaries upward. Could one have predicted that Ward, at age 33, would have the best season of his career? Not really. His regular-season goal totals in Nashville went from 17 to 13 to 10 in his three seasons. He had six goals in his first season in Washington before rebounding with eight in 39 games last season.

But at least one person saw it coming.

"I always did," said Ward, who pointed to his 17-goal season. " … My mindset, I’ve always been that guy, hoping to get 20. After that I always believed in myself. You just got to find your niche and if you can get power play time it’s obviously beneficial."

This coming July some players no doubt will get contracts that will make heads shake and eyes roll. But in the end, some of those players will end up being more than worth it. Teams may end up not minding the cost as much when it comes to character players, even if those players fall short of expectations for a time.