Carolina Hurricanes

‘We’re going to have a really, really good team.’ Canes’ Justin Williams expects better days.

Justin Williams experienced a full range of emotions in his first year back with the Carolina Hurricanes.

There was disappointment in not winning enough games, not reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs last season.

There was sadness in seeing a longtime friend and teammate, goalie Cam Ward, leave the team after the season in free agency.

There was satisfaction is seeing another friend and former teammate, Rod Brind’Amour, get his chance to be the Canes’ head coach.

There also was happiness, he said, in seeing the Washington Capitals finally win the Cup.

“And I’m not going to lie, some jealousy,” a smiling Williams said Tuesday about the Caps.

Williams is used to winning. His name is chiseled on the Stanley Cup three times -- the first after the Hurricanes won the Cup in 2006, then twice with the Los Angeles Kings.

After two seasons with the Caps, Williams returned to Carolina as a free agent in July 2017, the forward quickly proclaiming, “We’re done losing.” The Canes had missed the playoffs eight straight years and Williams was determined the steak would not reach nine.

It did reach nine. That did not sit well with new owner Tom Dundon and changes quickly came. Gone was general manager Ron Francis, then coach Bill Peters. Players being moved out included Ward, Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin, then Jeff Skinner.

All in all, a substantial makeover.

“A team that wins together usually stays together; a team that doesn’t win together has changes,” Williams said in an interview at Raleigh Center Ice. “This season there was just a lot more.

“That’s the nature of the business we have. It’s a success league and this team hasn’t been successful. ... What’s been happening hasn’t been acceptable for us, certainly for new management and certainly the fans. And they deserve better. We deserve better. And we made changes because of it.”

Brind’Amour, the Canes’ captain in 2006, has been an assistant coach with the team the past seven years but never a head coach. One change Brind’Amour has said he will make is having one team captain, one player wearing the “C.”

Peters went with Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk as co-captains last season, giving Skinner an “A” as the only alternate captain. Left out of the letter mix altogether was Williams, who many assumed might be the captain given his history with the team, experience and hockey resume.

“It didn’t hurt me but was I surprised? Yes,” Williams said. “But coming in, and certainly throughout the year, my role was very defined. I know what I am. The players got to know me and what I’m about. Was I a leader on the team? Yes. Did I have a letter? No.

“So it really didn’t matter how I approached things. I tried to help the young guys as best I can. I’m a realist, knowing I came here to do a lot of things, amongst them helping lead this team and by being a good role model.”

Williams, 36, filled that role well, both in game preparation and in competing. When something needed to be said, he said it.

“He holds people accountable,” Staal said.

While Brind’Amour has not announced who he will select as captain, many would be shocked if it’s not Williams.

williams:skinny.png
Carolina Hurricanes forwards Justin Williams, left, Jeff Skinner talk before a game early in 2017-18 season. Skinner was traded Aug. 2 to the Buffalo Sabres. Chip Alexander calexander@newsobserver.com

Ferland’s spot in the RCI locker room, near the back, belonged the past eight years to Skinner, who sat next to Williams last season in the room at PNC Arena. Skinner’s trade to the Buffalo Sabres on Aug. 2 angered many Canes fans, given Skinner’s popularity and offensive production, which must be replaced.

Asked his reaction to the trade, Williams said, “Surprised, maybe. Shocked, no. He’d been here a long time and maybe it was time for a mutual parting. I think that’s what both sides thought.

“I think it might have been time for Jeff. I think he’ll be tremendous in Buffalo. He might score 30, might score 40. He’s a very talented player. Sometimes, in my experience, I needed a change of scenery a couple of times and it worked out for the best for me. He’ll do great there.”

Williams was traded to the Canes from Philadelphia in January 2004 and won a Cup. He was traded to the Kings in March 2009 and won two more.

Ward spent the first 13 years of his career with the Canes, setting franchise records. Allowed to leave in free agency, he’ll be playing for the Chicago Blackhawks this season after agreeing to a one-year contract in July.

“Cam’s one of the big reasons I came back here and it was tough,” Williams said of Ward’s departure. “Cam and I talked. I told him every change of scenery for me had been positive and to go give it a chance and see what happens.”

Williams, slowed by injuries early in is career, has proved to be durable as he has aged. Since turning 30 in October 2011, he has missed just three games in five seasons, playing 407 of 410. He was one of four Canes to play all 82 games in 2017-18.

Williams’ offseason conditioning regimen includes yoga and has an emphasis on maintaining his core strength and flexibility. As he put it, “I’m at the point in my career I know I’m not going to get faster. The trick is I can’t lose a step, not the way the game is played now.”

A year ago, after signing his two-year, $9 million deal with the Carolina, he said the goal was for the Hurricanes’ to “climb the ladder and get relevant.” That climb continues.

“You never want to set a ceiling,” Williams said. “People are coming into this saying, ‘We’ve got to make the playoffs, we’ve got to make the playoffs.’ That doesn’t whet anyone’s appetite in here. That’s a step but that’s not where we want to be headed.

“You never know where this team is going to end up, how we’re going to jell, how guys are going to improve over the summer, throughout the year. I don’t want to set a ceiling for us because I don’t know where it’s going to be. All I know is we’re going to have a really, really good team.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

  Comments