NEW YORK - When the New York Rangers dealt Jason Ward to the Los Angeles Kings last season, Ward appeared to be on the path of a hockey nomad, playing for his third NHL organization in three years.
Playing less than a half-dozen shifts a game for one of the bottom teams in the league in Los Angeles, the 1997 first-round draft pick saw some writing on the rink walls.
'I went to L.A. and I got a heads-up; you go to the worst team in the league at that time and you get two or three minutes a night, it's a real eye-opener,' Ward said.
But an opportunity presented itself for Ward at the trade deadline last season when he wound up in Tampa. And he has seized the chance. The 28-year-old settled into the Lightning's style of play, which emphasizes skating and forechecking, two of Ward's strengths.
And when Ward and the Lightning suit up tonight against the team that shipped him to Hollywood last year, he returns as one of the more versatile players on the Tampa Bay roster. He finds himself playing on the second line with Brad Richards and Jan Hlavac, and he is producing, with a pair of goals in the past three games.
'He's playing really well right now. I enjoy playing with him,' Richards said. 'His feet are always moving; he's on pucks and creates a lot of turnovers. He gets in front of the net. He opens up and does some good things. We're playing with a lot of confidence right now, which is good.
'He makes the little plays, like in the neutral zone he hits me on a pass with speed, and it's plays like that you probably don't see in the stats, but I notice and as players we notice. He's smart.'
When the summer arrived and Ward had the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent, he never gave a thought to looking elsewhere for a new deal. During his exit interviews, he told General Manager Jay Feaster that he wanted to come back, which led to a quick strike on a two-year deal worth $1.35 million in early May, about six weeks before free agency opened.
At the time, Ward was expected to fill the roles of checker on the third line and penalty killer, which is where he started this season, playing alongside Chris Gratton and Mathieu Darche. Five games into the season, however, things weren't sailing smoothly on either the second or third line.
So in the middle of the game in Boston on Oct. 18, Ward was moved up to play on Richards' line, which he did for the better part of the last month of last season and in the postseason.
And in the sometimes inexplicable world of hockey line combinations, Ward just seems to be a good fit with Richards.
'I don't think Wardo was playing that well on Gratton's line. He wasn't moving his legs and wasn't chasing down pucks,' Lightning coach John Tortorella said. 'He has been a huge part of the success of the Richards line, because they have had the puck more and with him, that's the biggest strength of his game in forechecking. He's been around the puck more now, and his legs are really moving.
'He's a guy that can get down the ice and put pressure on the D, and he's helped that line with that.'
Ward has six goals in 26 games with Tampa Bay, after scoring four in 53 games with New York and L.A. last season. He doesn't have the answer to how he could go from an afterthought in Los Angeles last season to finding chemistry on the second line of one of top offensive teams in the league.
'It's just one of those things that happen in sports,' Ward said. 'It's just one of those things with a comfort level, and it's working right now. We're finding ways to win games, and that's the key, and that's what works. There is no way to define how it happens, it's just the way it is.'