In praise of Justin Williams

13 Comments

Justin Williams rightfully earned the nickname “Mr. Game 7,” yet his overtime game-winner to open the 2014 Stanley Cup Final is just the latest argument for why he means much more than that to the Los Angeles Kings.

“I’ve said this many times. Justin is the most underrated player on our team by a mile,” Drew Doughty said after Game 1 on Wednesday. “He doesn’t get enough credit for what he does.”

“There are two guys on this team that I want to give the puck to, and that’s him and Kopy. When they have the puck, plays happen.”

A lot has been happening for Williams lately. The 32-year-old generated four goals and nine assists for 13 points in his last 11 postseason games. He has 20 points in 22 playoff games overall in 2014. It’s clear that he’s shining in every game as of late, not just the most important ones.

Over being underrated

The thing is, Williams isn’t just underrated; he’s one of those guys who continues to be underrated even after years of being considered underrated.

As Dustin Brown explained to the Los Angeles Times in 2012, Anze Kopitar draws a lot of the scoring attention and there’s the kind of heat Brown draws:

“And maybe I draw some attention,” Brown said. “Maybe not a threat-to-score standpoint. But I want-to-kill-you standpoint.”

Brown believes that Williams prefers to fly under the radar a bit. That’s a good thing because it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle on Kings team that employs Brown, Doughty, Kopitar and Jonathan Quick. Then again, a search of “Justin Williams underrated” spits out message board threads discussing how unappreciated he was with the Carolina Hurricanes back in 2007, so maybe it’s just a way of life for Williams.

Dominant in subtler ways

Along with having some bad injury luck over the years, Williams might also go unnoticed because he hasn’t generated huge regular season numbers. He’s far-removed from back-to-back 30+ goal seasons with Carolina in 2005-06 and 06-07, yet Darryl Sutter explained what makes Williams such a sneaky-dominant player when he isn’t scoring huge goals.

“He hangs onto the puck, goes to traffic, hangs onto the puck, makes the plays,” Sutter said in May. “Takes a beating to make plays. He’s a role model for young players, for sure.”

“That’s the big thing now is the stat, the possession stat, that guys talk about. Justin is for sure one of the top guys in the league.”

Indeed, Williams’ possession numbers are eye-popping. In fact, he’s been so dominant that some believe that he benefits linemate Kopitar more than the other way around.

Does Williams drive play more than Kopitar? That’s up to debate, but the fact that you could make an argument for Williams begs the question of where he might rank among the league’s elite:

The Kings have Williams locked up through next season at a bargain cap hit of $3.65 million, so GM Dean Lombardi likely hopes that the versatile forward remains “underrated” (and underpaid) for a little while longer.

For more “In praise of … ” posts, click here.

Agent: Schultz likes Pittsburgh, but wants to be ‘rewarded’

Getty
2 Comments

Justin Schultz took a significant pay cut to re-sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins last year.

He doesn’t begrudge the deal he signed, as the Penguins have been a big part of turning his career around.

One assumes winning a couple of Stanley Cups has been pretty fun, too.

That being said, the 26-year-old defenseman wants a raise.

“We took a one-year, discounted deal to come back from last year and build upon what he did,” Schultz’s agent, Wade Arnott, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The player took a lot of the risk. The player performed. Now the player should be rewarded.”

Schultz, a restricted free agent, had a career-high 51 points in 78 games last season. Those 51 points were the seventh most among NHL defensemen — just five fewer than this summer’s biggest UFA, Kevin Shattenkirk, managed.

Schultz then added 13 more points in the playoffs, as the Penguins managed to win it all without Kris Letang.

For the record, Schultz wants to stay in Pittsburgh. The question is whether the Pens can afford to keep him, or if they’d be better off selling high in a trade.

“We’ll probably have some more direction here this week with where we’re going with [a possible extension],” Arnott said. “But we’ve had some good discussions.”

After Stepan trade, Zibanejad negotiations become even more crucial

Getty
1 Comment

For a good while, the center position in New York was largely carried by the one-two punch of Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan.

Now, the Derick & Derek show is no longer.

Stepan was shipped out during draft weekend in a blockbuster deal with Arizona. Brassard exited a year earlier in a move to Ottawa that brought Mika Zibanejad to the Blueshirts.

Zibanejad, 24, was acquired by GM Jeff Gorton in the hopes of one day becoming New York’s No. 1 center. He certainly showed he was capable this season — despite missing nearly 30 games with a broken fibula, he put together a fine offensive regular season and then surged in the playoffs, finishing with nine points in 12 games.

And now, a big negotiation sits on the horizon.

Zibanejad is a restricted free agent coming off a two-year, $5.25 million deal with a $2.625M cap hit. As we wrote earlier, Gorton is “open to anything” with regards to the extension, saying he’d be willing to go either short- or long-term.

One has to think Zibanejad has a ton of leverage. His acquisition price (Brassard) was significant, Stepan is now gone, and so too is depth center Oscar Lindberg, who was acquired by Vegas at the expansion draft. Right now, New York’s center depth consists of Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes and maybe some spot duty from J.T. Miller.

Lias Andersson, taken seventh overall at Friday’s draft, said he wants to make the Rangers this year. But there’s no guarantee he’ll even play in North America this season, as Gorton could opt to send Andersson back to the Swedish League for further development.

The free agent market isn’t especially inspiring down the middle, unless someone thinks they can land Joe Thornton, and there’s no doubt Zibanejad’s seen the paydays scored by some other good, young, top-line centers. Winnipeg gave Mark Scheifele $49 million over eight years, while Calgary gave Sean Monahan $44M over seven.

Is Zibanejad at their level? If you surveyed folks around the league, the answer would be probably no. But he could be soon and, what’s more, the Rangers may be forced to pay him as if he already is.

Sabres bring back defenseman Fedun on two-year deal

Getty
Leave a comment

Taylor Fedun, the Sabres depth defenseman that was set to become a UFA on Saturday, has agreed to a two-year, two-way extension, Buffalo announced on Monday.

Fedun, 29, appeared in 27 games for the Sabres last year, splitting time between the NHL and the club’s AHL affiliate in Rochester. He was a very productive player for the Amerks, scoring 23 points in 29 games.

Moving forward, most expect Fedun to continue in the same role he served this year — a guy that can provide veteran stability at the minor league level, and fill spot duty at the NHL level when injuries strike.

Ottawa extends Pyatt — two years, $2.2 million

Getty
Leave a comment

Tom Pyatt, the veteran forward who enjoyed some success reuniting with Guy Boucher in Ottawa last season, has re-signed with the Sens on a two-year, $2.2 million deal, per TSN.

Pyatt was a steady contributor for the Sens, scoring nine goals and 23 points while appearing in all 82 contests. He averaged over 15 minutes per night and was a vital part of the club’s penalty kill, leading all forwards in blocked shots.

He also appeared in 14 playoff games, scoring twice.

Prior to playing in Ottawa, Pyatt had skated under Boucher in Tampa Bay. They spent parts of two years together with the Lightning, before heading off to Switzerland — Pyatt with Geneve Servette, Boucher with Bern SC.

Pyatt was set to become an unrestricted free agent on Saturday, but clearly liked the fit in Ottawa. He’ll get a pay bump — up from the $800,000 he made last year — a bit more long-term security, and possibly a bigger role with the Sens moving forward.

Ottawa has already stated it will cut ties with veteran tough guy Chris Neil, and decisions are still looming on UFA forwards Viktor Stalberg, Chris Kelly and Tommy Wingels.