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Canes still waiting on decision from captain Justin Williams

Carolina Hurricanes’ Justin Williams on 2018-19 season: ‘We played well, we played hard, we played for each other’

Justin Williams addresses the media on Monday, May 20, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.
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Justin Williams addresses the media on Monday, May 20, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.

Will he or won’t he?

It’s now August and Carolina Hurricanes captain Justin Williams still hasn’t decided if he’ll return for another season -- and another shot at the Stanley Cup -- or call it a career and retire.

Canes general manager Don Waddell said Thursday that he still believed Williams was “leaning” toward playing a 19th season in the NHL. He said Williams, who turns 38 on Oct. 4, was returning to Raleigh next week, saying, “We’ll sit down at that point and figure it out.”

That includes the terms of a new contract, which Waddell said have not been discussed. Williams is an unrestricted free agent.

“It’s more about his commitment,” Waddell said. “Justin’s not going to do something if he’s not 100 percent (committed.)“

Waddell said the wait for Williams’ decision did not handicap or hinder the team in any way. He said the Canes continued to do all that they needed to do in the offseason to improve, trading for forward Erik Haula and goalies James Reimer and Anton Forsberg while signing free-agent forward Ryan Dzingel.

“If Justin comes back it’s a bonus,” Waddell said.

According to CapFriendly.com, which tracks player contracts, the Canes have about $2.5 million in salary-cap space for next season and still have not signed such restricted free agents as Forsberg and forward Saku Maenalanen.

Forsberg, obtained in June from the Chicago Blackhawks, has filed for arbitration and Waddell said he expects the arbitration hearing to held as scheduled on Sunday. Waddell said Forberg’s agent is Gerry Johannson, who also represents Canes center Sebastian Aho.

Williams signed a two-year, $9 million free-agent contract with the Canes in July 2017. A new contract, Waddell said, would not cause salary-cap problems.

“He’s a player age 35 and older, so we can give him bonuses and they can be whatever to get him to some type of guarantee,” Waddell said. “And if we end up over the cap this year, those bonuses get charged to next year.”

The Canes this season will be charged $6.25 million against the cap from the June trade with Toronto that brought a conditional first-round draft pick along with the contract of veteran forward Patrick Marleau that later was bought out.

“That $6.250 (million) comes off next year, so there won’t be an issue next year,” Waddell said.

The offer sheet given Aho by the Montreal Canadiens on July 1, then matched by the Canes, ended the possibility of a contract holdout by Aho that could have extended into training camp and beyond. Aho will be paid an average of $8.454 million the next five years. That’s about $1 million more per year than the Canes were offering the 22-year-old Finn, Waddell indicated.

“I figured we’d probably have to go to $8 (million) or so, so it’s not far off and it’s done,” Waddell said. “We know he’s here for training camp and it’s all done.”

The attention now is on Williams, who poured everything he had into last season as the Canes ended nine years of frustration with their first playoff appearance since 2009.

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Carolina’s Justin Williams sits in the locker room with his kids Jaxon and Jade after the Boston Bruins eliminated the Carolina Hurricanes in game four of the Eastern Conference finals at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Thursday, May 16, 2019. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Williams wore the “C” for the first time in his career. He said and did the right things. He also was productive, playing every game, finishing with 23 goals and 30 assists in the regular season -- his 53-point total his highest since 2011-12 with the Los Angeles Kings.

The Canes fought past the Washington Capitals in the opening round of the playoffs -- Williams assisting on Brock McGinn’s winning goal in the second overtime of Game 7 -- and swept the New York Islanders in the second round. The Boston Bruins then swept the Canes in the Eastern Conference finals, but a disappointing end couldn’t diminish all that the Canes accomplished in a special season under first-year head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

Williams said he would take his time in reaching a decision on his future, and that it would be a family decision. He attended the NHL Awards ceremony in Las Vegas -- he was a finalist for the Mark Messier Leadership Award -- and recently conducted his annual youth hockey camp in his hometown of Cobourg, Ontario.

In a question-and-answer interview last week with Today’s Northumberland website, Williams said he had asked his two kids, son Jaxon and daughter Jade, if they wanted him to continue playing hockey or have “Dad” at home more. He said both wanted him to play, that the family enjoyed coming to the games and seeing him play.

Does that mean another season for No. 14, for the captain? Only Williams can say.

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In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.
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