Luke DeCock

Hurricanes willing to pay steep price for Justin Williams’ leadership – DeCock

The Carolina Hurricanes Justin Williams is greeted by the fans as he carries the Stanley Cup off the ice in Raleigh on June 19, 2006. The Canes beat the Edmonton Oilers 3-1 in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals.
The Carolina Hurricanes Justin Williams is greeted by the fans as he carries the Stanley Cup off the ice in Raleigh on June 19, 2006. The Canes beat the Edmonton Oilers 3-1 in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals. News & Observer file photo

There’s no getting around that $9 million is a ton of money and that two years is a long contract for a 35-year-old forward who was never the fastest player in the NHL anyway. It’s exactly the kind of inflated July 1 deal the Carolina Hurricanes have assiduously avoided handing out both under Jim Rutherford and Ron Francis.

In this very specific case, for Justin Williams, it makes all the sense in the world.

While there’s still at least one hole on the roster that needs filling if the Hurricanes want to give themselves the best chance of making the playoffs in the brutal Metropolitan Division, and it will be an open question how much Williams can still contribute at his age – in a non-Game 7 situation, anyway – Williams will provide invaluable leadership for a young team that’s still figuring out how to win. The fact that he did it here in 2006, scoring the empty-net goal that clinched the Stanley Cup, will only help drive the point home.

“I don’t think it’s any secret why I’m here,” Williams said. “It goes without saying, I’m 35 years old. I’m not coming in as a young, fresh-faced kid. I’ve been around the block. I’ve seen a lot.”

There are so few players in the dressing room who know what it takes to get to the playoffs in the NHL, let alone win there. Cornerstone players like Justin Faulk and Jeff Skinner have never sniffed the postseason. Williams, a proven and multiple winner, is being paid to set an example as much as he is to score goals. You may overpay for the hockey player on Day 1 of free agency – Williams made $2.5 million less with the Capitals over the past two seasons – but you’re still getting fair value on the human being.

Bringing in Williams, who has scored between 19 and 24 goals in each of the past seven seasons, will help add some goal-scoring on the wings, even if it doesn’t lessen the pressure already in place on players like Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Elias Lindholm to continue to improve their production (and in Aho’s case, the sky appears to be the limit). But Williams is a player who has won here, who wants to be here – Williams and his wife bought a house in Cary in May – and who will be asked to lead the way toward winning here again.

“It’s great that he believes in what we’re building and what we’re doing and the young players we have,” Francis said, “and feels that we’re close enough to win that he wants to be a part of it.”

It’s not just Williams; new arrivals Scott Darling and Trevor van Riemsdyk have their names on the Stanley Cup as well.

The Hurricanes also added depth forward Josh Jooris on Saturday, but still cry out for a workhorse center – to be fair, most NHL teams do – and they would probably be better off with a veteran on the third defensive pairing, although as things stand Francis said prospects like Haydn Fleury, Roland McKeown and Trevor Carrick will have a chance to win that job, and there’s nothing wrong with giving those players that incentive.

The only question now is whether the Hurricanes, captainless since the Eric Staal trade, will bestow that honor upon Williams. He’ll be new to the dressing room – only Cam Ward is left from Williams’ previous tenure in Carolina, although he played alongside Francis and assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour – but that might be a good thing. Francis said he and coach Bill Peters will wait until the end of training camp to make a decision on that. But just as the roster was in need of a shake-up a few years ago, a shake-up in the room might be the kind of jolt that propels some of these young players forward.

“It’s time to climb the ladder and get relevant,” Williams said, and it’s up to him to pull his new teammates along with him, captain or not.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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