Williams' return brings credibility
Posted July 1
On a day when the attention would have normally be on the future stars of the Carolina Hurricanes, general manager Ron Francis shined the spotlight on a former one. Justin Williams, the fiery, steady, versatile winger who scored the empty net goal that put the icing on the Stanley Cup cake 11 Junes ago, has returned to the organization. Francis inked the 35-year old, 3-time Cup champion to a 2-year, $9 million contract on the first day of free agency.
There were other moves, Josh Jooris, a forward with 153 games of NHL experience signed for one year, likely as insurance should Lucas Wallmark or someone else not be ready for a starting role coming out of training camp. Francis wasn’t done there, Jeremy Smith, a 28 year old goaltender who played 10 games for the Avalanche last season, and Brenden Kichton and Dennis Robertson, a pair of minor league defensemen all signed 2-way contracts to add depth to the organization.
But, July 1, 2017 will be remembered for how Francis reached back to the future and tried to add the most credibility he could to a team desperately in search of relevance. In fact, it was exactly that word Williams used during his get-reacquainted conference call that stuck out like an 8-year post season drought.
“We’re done losing”, Williams said. “It’s time to start climbing the ladder and get relevant.”
But, before we start printing Stanley Cup playoff tickets it’s wise to consider that Williams’ impact on the team will have to go well beyond his offensive production. Granted, the Hurricanes just added a 20-plus goal scorer and someone capable of a 50-point season to the top-6 forward group. That should not be overlooked. But, if you think that’s why Francis doled out $9 million then you’re not paying attention.
Williams’ value will be realized, not just in the goals he creates for himself and his line mates, but for the indirect impact he has on the production of others. When Williams left for Los Angeles in the winter of 2009, in a series of trades that resulted in the return of Erik Cole, he didn’t have the “big game” reputation that will enter the dressing room at PNC Arena. Williams was always a good player, always a determined, steady, reliable part of a good team. But, in capturing two Stanley Cups in Los Angeles Williams transformed himself into a King-maker — pun intended.
So now, can Justin show Jeff Skinner and Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask and Sebastian Aho and Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin and Justin Faulk how to be the same player — wait, not the same player — how to be a BETTER player when the games matter the most? Can some of Williams “Mr Game 7” magic manifest itself in games 1-82 on his new, young teammates. Williams has 273 goals and 682 points in 1,080 career regular season games. Registering .63/ppg for a career is very good. In 140 post season games, the numbers are a little better (.67/ppg). In eight career game sevens...off the charts. Williams has 14 points including seven goals, and before being stymied with the rest of his Washington teammates in last year’s 2-0 loss to the Penguins, he was a perfect 7-0 in those games.
Skinner and Lindholm, especially, are coming off breakthrough seasons. Skinner scored a career-best 37 goals and was more consistent in all three zones than he’d ever been in his 8-year career. Lindholm finally showed the rugged, productive, borderline antagonistic game that had been forecast for him all along. But, largely they performed without the responsibility of winning. When the Hurricanes shot themselves out of the post season starting in the middle of January, it took a lot of pressure off the team making it harder to evaluate what those games and points truly meant.
That isn’t to say that Skinner and Lindholm retreated during that stretch, and it would be unfair to discount the way they played as Carolina was making that raucous late-charge back into the periphery of the race. But, part of Williams job-description will be to hold the producers accountable to the team. I’m not expecting that he’ll be like Michael Jordan, lording over teammates, screaming at them in practice, that’s not who Justin Williams is.
Williams is a winner, plain and simple. And, on July 1, 2017, Ron Francis paid a steep price to bring that dynamic into the Hurricanes’ dressing room. We’ll be able to judge if that was money well spent if some of that championship caliber DNA rubs off on a series of players who’ve yet to experience even a single sleepless Stanley Cup night.