And then we have Joel Ward.
Ward played his first full NHL season at the ripe age of 28 and has been most productive during his age-33 and -34 seasons. I’ve written before that Ward’s rise in production isn’t sustainable. I’m still not convinced it is fully, but I’m less skeptical than I used to be. What Ward is doing now, namely crashing the net, might be behind the late bloom.
Ward’s best season was at age 33. This season, at age 34, while Ward’s point production is down a bit, his goal production is on pace with last season’s career best.
What the heck? Is Joel Ward aging backward? Is Joel Ward Benjamin Button? (Full disclosure: I’ve never read the F. Scott Fitzgerald story or seen the movie. I’m just under the impression that it’s about aging backwards. And hockey, probably.)
Ward scored 24 goals last season, a career high. Since 2005, 21 players have posted 24 or more goals in their age 33 season. I was surprised to find that seven of these 21 players set a career-high for goals in their age 33 season, including Mike Knuble. But, in the bigger picture, Ward’s rise in production as he approaches his mid-thirties is uncommon.
What’s behind it?
Is Ward suddenly seeing more ice time? Ward’s career ATIO is 15:41. Last season he saw 16:04– not a significant uptick. This season he’e seeing 17:36 (way too much), which is a bit more. But he averaged 17:32 in 2009-10 and 17:04 in 2010-11, so an increase in playing time alone doesn’t explain it.
Maybe he’s facing easier minutes, which we can look at on the X and Y-axis of the chart below.
The Y-axis, quality of competition, doesn’t give us much to build off.
Last season, Ward’s zone starts (the x-axis) were nothing out of the ordinary. This season, he is facing the easiest zone starts of his career. Interestingly, his zone starts relative to his teammates this season are the toughest of his career, which just means that the 2014-15 Caps are seeing a lot of offensive zone faceoffs. Given the fact that Ward faced career-average zone starts last season, and he is facing tough relative zone starts this season, deployment is probably not why he’s so productive the past two seasons.
Nor is it shot generation. Ward is not suddenly taking a lot more shots. In fact, his individual shot attempts per 60 minutes this season (9.51) are actually the lowest of his career.
But, when he is shooting the puck, it is going in A LOT more often, as you can see below in his season-by-season shooting percentages.
Joel Ward is shooting 18 percent since the start of the 2013-14 season. As an 11.6 percent career shooter, this is a significant jump and playing a big part in his best seasons at ages 33 and 34.
Ward has not suddenly become a sniper. Instead, it seems he is getting more shots in close. The graphic below is from War on Ice. I’ll explain more below, but the left-hand side is from Ward’s rookie season through the end of 2012-13. The right-hand side is 2013-14.
Let’s focus on the slot. On the left-hand side, we can see that Ward generated shots from the slot at about average through 2012-13. To be exact, he generated 0.08 fewer slot shots per 60 minutes than the average NHL player.
The red dots in the slot area of the chart of the right show that this changed drastically at the start of the 2013-14 season. Since then, Ward has generated 3.24 more slot shots per 60 minutes than the average player. This plays a part in how a career 11-percent shooter is suddenly sniping at an 18-percent clip.
Maybe this is just a season and a half aberration. Or maybe Ward really does drive to the net more than he did before 2013-14. The shot quality debate is a murky one, and one that’s too lengthy for our purposes here.
But Joel Ward is more productive now than ever, which is not the norm for a hockey player as they enter their mid-30’s. He’s shooting much more efficiently than earlier in his career thanks, at least in part, to a lot more of his shots coming from the slot area. I’m happy to eat crow on my prediction that Ward’s offense would regress this season if he can continue drive the net and score more goals.
All data from War on Ice and Hockey Analysis, unless otherwise noted.
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