Canes captain determined to make team relevant again
The subject was being the captain of the Carolina Hurricanes, of wearing the “C” and being the acknowledged team leader.
Jordan Staal shared the “C” with Justin Faulk two seasons ago as co-captains. Last season, it was Justin Williams, alone.
For the third straight year, there will be a change. Williams on Monday announced he would “step away” from the NHL and would not be with the Hurricanes when they begin training camp this month or at the start of the 2019-2020 season. No official retirement announcement, but Williams’ absence will be felt.
“I can imagine it was a tough decision because he’s played a long time and done it at a high level for a long time,” Faulk said Tuesday. “He had a good year and the team did well, so it probably made it pretty hard on him. If he needs more time to figure it out it’s more than his right. It’s his decision and however they want to do it I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer.
“He’s great in the room, great on the ice, off the ice, out of the room, just a good guy all around. He’s a true pro. Any time someone like that leaves a locker room it’s never easy to fill and never easy to replace, if it is replaceable. It’s on other guys to do their thing and carry on and carry the torch and make sure everybody is doing their jobs.”
Staal and Faulk both agreed the co-captain approach, a decision made by former coach Bill Peters, seemed a bit awkward. Williams had signed a two-year free-agent contract and returned to the team he helped lead to the 2006 Stanley Cup before winning two more Cups with the Los Angeles Kings. Williams appeared to be the likely choice in 2017-18.
But Peters did not name him captain nor have him serve as an alternate captain. No letter, an obvious slight. Rod Brind’Amour, once named Peters’ replacement as head coach, quickly remedied that, making Williams the captain and having Staal and Faulk wear “A’s” last season as the alternates.
“I think one (captain) is better, probably,” Faulk said Tuesday. “I think one works. It has been the tradition of hockey. One makes things a little smoother and a little easier.”
While Staal said having a “C” was an honor, Williams was an obvious choice given his depth of experience, success and strong personality, allowing Staal more freedom to simply go out and play, be the strong center that Brind’Amour wants him to be. The Canes, with Williams the consummate leader, qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2009 and reached the Eastern Conference finals.
The Canes became relevant again in the NHL -- Williams’ stated goal in coming back to Carolina in July 2017 -- and the captain made sure they had fun doing it, orchestrating the postgame Storm Surge celebrations that were zany at times but entertaining.
“Willy took a lot of stuff outside the rink on his shoulders, obviously a lot with the media and other stuff,” Staal said. “I probably had a little less of that and that was nice. He took that day-to-day stuff and took it on himself. He obviously said the right things, whether it was being hard on guys or having that good feel for the room and knowing whose buttons to push and who needed a pat on the back. It was good leadership.”
Williams, who will be 38 on Oct. 4, made it clear after the season that he would not make a decision to return unless he was completely committed to being back, mentally, physically and emotionally. Retirement would be mean more family time -- with his wife, Kelly, son Jaxon and daughter, Jade.
Now, Williams has both hinted at retirement while also leaving the door open to a possible return this season. The Canes appear to be on-board with that arrangement -- Williams’ Wikipedia page now has his status listed as “semi-retired.”
The question: who takes over as captain?
As he approaches his 31st birthday next week, Staal has played 893 regular-season games and is well-respected by everyone associated with the organization. Brind’Amour, for one, often has noted, “I don’t know what more I can say about Jordan.”
It could be that Brind’Amour turns to Faulk, who has played his entire career with the franchise or another, younger defenseman, Jaccob Slavin.
Sebastian Aho might be the Canes’ best player but is the center ready at 22 for the “C” and could the added responsibilities affect his play?
There’s veteran forward Jordan Martinook. In one year with the team he has established himself as a leader and mentor in the locker room, and his determination during the playoffs to be on the ice despite a painful injury inspired his teammates.
For Brind’Amour, making Williams the captain was a coaching no-brainer. More thought will go into this selection.
The fact the Canes made such a deep playoff run, playing until mid-May, reduced the players’ recovery time in preparing for a new season.
“The hangover hung over for a while but we had so many great memories and a lot of fun,” Staal said. “It was a good hangover, so to speak, and a good summer, getting away more mentally than physically.”
For Williams, playing all 82 in the regular season and the 15 in the playoffs took a toll, especially with the Canes in must-win mode down the stretch, battling the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens for a wild-card playoff spot. The forward put so much into the season and his career numbers -- 1,244 regular-season games, 155 playoff games -- almost seem staggering.
Brind’Amour said late last week that the Canes have had to prepare for this season with the idea Williams would not be back as Williams pondered a decision. They have a full complement of forwards, having added Erik Haula and Ryan Dzingel in the offseason. Williams leaves a void, for sure, but Brind’Amour has options.
“We’ve added quality players and more importantly good people who will fit into what we’re trying do,” Brind’Amour said last week. “But I think it’s such a fine margin. You can have a great team and not do well. Things can happen.”