Justin Williams

Hurricanes remain ‘hopeful’ for a Justin Williams comeback

3 Comments

When Justin Williams announced in September he would be “taking a break” from hockey, he didn’t shut the door entirely on a possible comeback at some point this season.

“Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game,” wrote the 38-year-old Williams.

With the Hurricanes sitting in an Eastern Conference wild card and only two points away from a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division, adding a veteran goal scorer like Williams would only help. What he brings on and off the ice is immeasurable, and it was clear last season just how valuable he was to a budding young team. The team is hopeful he’ll return to play and are keeping the lines of communication open.

“We continue to talk with him. I think he’s working out a little bit more on his own right now,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell told the team website this week. “I think he’s going to start coming to the gym a little more. That’s a positive sign. What that end result is yet is still a mystery to all of us, but we’re hopeful that maybe there is an opportunity there to have him come back.”

Waddell isn’t the only one who’s unsure of a Williams return. Williams himself sounds like he’s been back and forth on what his future holds, according to head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“I don’t know. I think we’re getting closer to a time where if he doesn’t, then he’s not,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got to get in game shape and do all that, so there’s a time frame for that. There’s still time for that. … We talk quite a bit. We mostly talk about kids and how’s coaching going. I’ll ask if he’s staying in shape or getting in shape, and he’ll some days say, ‘Yeah,’ and then say, ‘Ah, maybe.’ So, we’ll see.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Hurricanes need to fill leadership void after Justin Williams steps away

Getty Images
1 Comment

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes once again are looking for leadership – and maybe another captain.

Veteran forward Justin Williams’ decision to step away from the sport leaves them with questions about their captaincy heading into a season in which they will try to build upon their run to the Eastern Conference final.

That means an organization that has gone without a captain – and, for one season, used two of them – must again figure out what it will do with the ”C” this year.

Coach Rod Brind’Amour says he’s not in a rush to hand out a letter.

”It will be a tough hole to fill, but as of now, we’re moving on from Willie as our captain,” forward Jordan Staal said Wednesday, ”and we’ll see where it takes us.”

One of the key questions that hung over the Hurricanes this offseason was whether Williams – a 37-year-old three-time Stanley Cup winner and unrestricted free agent – would re-sign for a 19th NHL season, or if he would retire.

Now that will linger well into the season.

He said earlier this week that he is taking a break from the NHL to start the year because of his ”current indecision” about whether he has the mental and physical commitment to keep playing.

”Be perfectly clear on it: He’s not part of the group. We’re moving on as if he’s not going to be here,” Brind’Amour said. ”If he comes to us in January or February and says, ‘Maybe I want to come back,’ he’ll have a month of practice but it’s not going to catch us by surprise. He’s earned the right to make that decision and for us to somewhat leave that door open, I guess, is a way to look at it.”

That’s the latest twist for Carolina’s drama-filled captaincy that dates back to the Eric Staal trade in February 2016.

The Hurricanes didn’t have anyone wearing the ”C” until 2017-18, when they had defenseman Justin Faulk and Staal share the job with each holding the title for half of what was coach Bill Peters’ final season. After Peters left for Calgary last summer, Brind’Amour tapped his teammate from the Hurricanes’ 2006 Cup-winning team to take the top leadership role and made those two alternates.

Williams thrived in that spot, with his teammates praising the way he held them accountable and engaging fans – and riling up critics – by masterminding the ”Storm Surge” postgame victory celebrations on home ice. Along the way he tallied 23 goals and 30 assists while playing all 82 regular-season games and helping Carolina earn its first playoff berth since 2009.

The Hurricanes upset Washington in their first-round series – with ”Mr. Game 7” assisting on the winning goal in the second overtime of Game 7 – and swept the New York Islanders before they were swept by Boston in the conference final.

This season sets up as a critical crossroads for them. They hope to prove their reconstruction project has staying power and that they weren’t one-year wonders who rode a late-season hot streak into the playoffs.

And with Williams gone for an undetermined amount of time – perhaps permanently – they hope some other players have developed leadership skills that will provide a similarly positive influence over a mostly young team.

”I think as a core, as a group, we’ve got a lot of good kids and a lot of good leaders,” Staal said. ”Usually, as a captain, there’s a lot of guys beside him that are helping him out. I think Willie was a great leader, but as a core, I think there were a lot of great guys that showed up every day ready to work and came into camp (in good) shape and all the stuff that you have to do to create a team that’s going to be competitive every night.”

Pominville and other bargain bin NHL free agents to consider

Getty Images

With training camps nearing, it’s not surprising that you won’t find a ton of great NHL-ready options in free agency as of Sept. 3.

That’s especially true once you start crossing certain names off of the list with the help of context. Jake Gardiner’s either dealing with back issues, or waiting for a team (possibly the Maple Leafs) to sort out cap issues before signing a deal. Justin Williams just announced that he’s taking some time off, at best. Patrick Marleau’s potential options seem cloudy. Joe Thornton appears primed to sign with the Sharks, eventually (maybe).

When you knock those four names off of the list at a place like Cap Friendly, things start to look pretty stark.

Nonetheless, it’s worthwhile to bat around a few names, even if there might only be one or two players who end up being worth anything more than a tryout. Let’s consider some that stand out; feel free to bring up other UFAs who might be worth a mention in the comments.

Jason Pominville: One of the few on this list that I’d consider signing to an actual one-year contract, rather than merely a PTO, if it came down to it. Sportsnet’s Eric Engels reports that the Montreal Canadiens are considering Pominville, but also reports that nothing is “imminent,” so you’d assume another bidder could roll in.

On one hand, yes, Pominville is 36. There’s some risk that his already marginal potential would boil down to zero considering all of his mileage.

Yet, you’ll note that Pominville managed a respectable 31 points despite minimal ice time, and while much of that offense came alongside Jeff Skinner and Jack Eichel, Pominville was one of the best fits with those two. Teams probably won’t ask Pominville to play on a top line very often, but he could be a cheap option to plug into different scenarios.

Pominville comes off reasonably well by a number of metrics, and his RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey looks positive enough:

If it wasn’t already clear, we’re so deep in the discount aisle, we’re actually looking at the stuff that’s in some sad bin outside the store. By those standards, Pominville is reasonably intriguing.

Brian Boyle: At 34, Boyle is no longer the type of center you’d ask to play a “shutdown” role, and he struggled once he was traded to the Predators last season, but this assessment from after that move away from New Jersey still captures Boyle’s value:

If your team’s coach is barking incessantly about adding a big body, you could do worse than Boyle, especially if a team could use someone to screen goalies on the power play. Boyle is a very large human, after all.

Troy Brouwer is another gritty option who could be decent filler.

Thomas Vanek: While Boyle’s largest utility is defense (and being large) at this point, Vanek is all-offense, to the point that he’d likely torment many coaches, particularly since that offense isn’t flowing like it once was.

Still, one could see an argument for Vanek being a power play specialist on a team that lacks a trigger. Is he enough of a net positive to really be worth considering? Debatable.

Tobias Rieder: He was never good enough for an Oilers executive to give him the scapegoat treatment, and it’s undoubtedly been a rough couple of years, but he’s a speedy winger, so there’s at least some appeal there.

Ben Hutton: OK, look … Hutton was abysmal last season. There’s a reason the defense-starved Canucks passed on bringing him back.

Still, Hutton stands out from a pack mostly consisting of way-past-their-prime veterans (Dion Phaneuf, Dan Girardi) in that he’s merely 26 years old. Could Hutton be a serviceable bottom-pairing option after being played well out of his depth with 22:21 ATOI last season? Maybe 2017-18 is a better guide. While Hutton provided marginal offense (six assists in 61 games), his possession numbers were somewhat OK, at least relative to his (bad) teammates, while Hutton averaged a more reasonable 18:25 per night.

There aren’t many signs pointing to Hutton being a “good” defenseman, but could he be an upgrade over a team’s sixth or even seventh option? It’s not out of the question, as the bar is pretty low for bottom pairing defensemen.

***

Ideally, your team already has better options than the names mentioned above. Still, there could be some use for players like Pominville, particularly for squads lacking depth.

Now, if your team is looking for a goalie? Well, you could always cross your fingers …

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hurricanes announce Justin Williams is taking break from hockey

Getty
3 Comments

It seemed likely that there were only two real possibilities for free agent forward Justin Williams at the start of the offseason: Either a return to the Carolina Hurricanes for another season, or retirement.

For now, he seems to have met in the middle.

The Hurricanes announced on Monday that Williams is “taking a break” from hockey and that he will not play at the start of the 2019-20 NHL season.

This is not a retirement announcement and does leave the door open for a potential return at some point, either with the Hurricanes or someone else.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt unsure of my aspirations with regards to hockey,” said Williams in a statement released by the Hurricanes. “For as long as I can remember, my whole off-season until this point has been hockey and doing what was necessary to prepare for the upcoming season. Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game.

“It’s important to me that the focus of attention is on the current, very talented group the Carolina Hurricanes have assembled, as they prepare to build on the momentum and growth we established last season.”

Added general manager Don Waddell: “We appreciate Justin’s honesty and openness throughout this process, and respect his decision. He’s been an important part of our team, but we did prepare our roster with the understanding that he might step away. We are confident in the group we’ve assembled.”

Williams, 37, was still an excellent player this past season with 20 goals and 53 total points in 82 games for a Hurricanes that went all the way to the Eastern Conference Final. Even as his career went deeper into his 30s he remained as reliable and durable (missing just three games over the past eight seasons) as any player in the league.

In 1,244 games over 18 seasons Williams has 312 goals and 786 total points for the Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, and Los Angeles Kings.

He also owns three Stanley Cup rings, including one with the Hurricanes during the 2005-06 season, and has developed a reputation for being one of the best big-game players in the league.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Morning Skate: Williams still unsure on return; Golden Knights’ bad summer

Getty Images

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Justin Williams still is undecided on returning to the Carolina Hurricanes. (NHL.com)

• A few thoughts on 2020 NHL Draft prospects by Craig Button. (TSN.ca)

• Mike Babcock, Bruce Boudreau and four others are on the hot seat for the coming season. (Sporting News)

• A very deep dive into expected goals and pre-shot movement. (Hockey Graphs)

• Still two seasons away from puck drop in Seattle, general manager Ron Francis has so much to do. (Sports Illustrated)

• Joe Sakic, unsurprisingly, wants a long-term deal with Mikko Rantanen (but will settle for shorter if need be.) (TSN.ca)

• Seattle’s expanding NHL front office? New GM Ron Francis has strong candidates looming once he gets hiring go-ahead. (Seattle Times)

• The Athletic’s farm system rankings have begun. (The Athletic)

Juuso Valimaki‘s ACL tear has the Flames on the hunt for a defenseman. (The Score)

• Still-unsigned Blackhawk Brendan Perlini is just one small piece of NHL’s massive restricted free agent blockade. (Chicago Sun-Times)

• The Golden Knights’ offseason has been very bad — how did we get here and what lies ahead? (Knights on Ice)

• NHL teams that still have work to do this summer. (Featurd)

• Why Mitch Marner to the Vancouver Canucks won’t happen. (The Canuck Way)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck