Slumping Sharks Should Utilize Joel Ward’s Versatility

One of the biggest perks to bringing a guy like Joel Ward into your organization is his ability to produce on any forward line and in any situation. Top line, fourth line, power play, penalty kill, Ward can play anywhere and be effective. The currently slumping Sharks brought Ward to San Jose this offseason as a free agent and so far he has been terrific. In seven games, Ward has scored two goals and added three assists for five points, but with injuries and poor performances, the Sharks have had to shuffle their lines of late. One of the recent changes midway through San Jose’s third straight loss on Thursday night was moving Ward up to the top line with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski. This is the combination that yours truly was hoping to see going into the season.

More Joel Ward Would be a Good Thing

While not a 50-plus point performer like many top-six players in the NHL, Ward has often jumped up the depth chart in his career with the Washington Capitals and Nashville Predators. Last season with Washington, Ward played with Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs where he was extremely effective. He led Washington last postseason with nine points in 14 games. Thornton and Pavelski are very similar players talent wise and stylistically to Ovechkin and Backstrom. Playing Ward in this same spot on San Jose’s top line makes a lot of sense.

On their first shift together against LA, Ward scored San Jose’s lone goal on the night on a terrific set-up by Pavelski. One of the underrated assets of Pavelski’s game is the ability to dish. Scoring 41 and 37 goals the last two seasons will overshadow the natural center’s ability to make plays. In that way, he is certainly different than Ovechkin but the Sharks’ No. 8 and No. 19 would benefit from Ward’s presence just like the Capitals’ No. 8 and No. 19. Ward can create space and havoc in front of the net, allowing the more skilled linemates the time to make plays. To start the season, Joonas Donskoi was playing well with the Joes but he has been banged up of late and neither Nikolay Goldobin nor Matt Nieto have been able to sustain their very brief (a few shifts each) strong play on that left wing spot on the top line.

Put Him on the Top Power Play

Not only should Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer give Ward a real look on the top line, but he also must come to his senses and put him on the top power-play unit. San Jose’s usually dominant power play has looked lost ever since Logan Couture went down with an injury in practice going into the New Jersey game. San Jose is now just 1-for-its-last-16 on the man advantage since a two-goal performance in the season opener against the Kings.

Joel Ward
Joel Ward with Washington last season

Without Couture, a staple on the top unit the last few years, the Sharks power play has lost nearly all of its potency. That said, the replacement choices for Couture have been some significant head scratchers. The three players to slot in so far with Couture out have been defensemen Paul Martin and Matt Tennyson and center Chris Tierney. Neither of these first three choices make a whole lot of sense. It is understandable at first to try and keep the second unit together and replace Couture with someone like Martin who wasn’t already playing the power play. But since the man advantage has gone ice cold, breaking up the second unit isn’t something to be concerned with at this point. Getting the top unit going again is far more important. The No. 1 unit sees the lion’s share of the ice time and scores the vast majority of the goals. Therefore, it is time for Ward to take over on the top unit power play.

When healthy, the Sharks top power-play unit has featured four forwards and one defenseman over the last few seasons. Those four forwards are accustomed to rotating around throughout the zone, and that movement has helped make them deadly. Martin and Tennyson filling obviously don’t bring the same offensive style that Couture is known for since they are defensemen. And while no forward can replace Couture, the Sharks would be wise to replace him with a fellow forward. And Ward makes more sense than Tierney because he has experience playing with similar high-end caliber players like Thornton and Pavelski. Furthermore, Tierney is more of a Thornton-type passer, and they don’t need two of those types on the same unit. It would shock me if the power play were to continue to struggle if DeBoer moved Ward into the spot vacated by Couture. Going this route would allow the power play to continue its usual four-forward look and Ward has played top-unit power-play time in the past with Washington. He can use his famous big buttocks in front of the net and get some ugly power-play goals.