This wasn’t what Justin Williams, or anyone else, signed up for this season. Not a ninth straight final home game with nothing beyond it. Not a regression from last season, or even the season before.
So Williams sat in front of his locker at the end of his sixth season with the Carolina Hurricanes and his first back after nine successful years away, left skate on, right skate off, and reflected upon a season that went nowhere.
Maybe others were willing to put a happy face on a 3-2 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday. Williams was not. At 36, he only has so many chances left, and this season turned out to be a complete waste of one.
“I mean, listen, it’s tough for me to put a smile on my face for a couple seconds and then you realize where you are and it turns into a frown,” Williams said.
That’s what distinguishes Williams, unfortunately, from many of his teammates who have never won a Stanley Cup – never even been to the playoffs, most of them – and why he should have been at least an alternate captain if not sole captain instead of the cockamamie co-captaincy that helped sink this season before it even started.
Williams came back to lead this team back to the postseason. Instead, this season, worse than the one before or the one before that, reinforced that among the too many players in that dressing room who have never known winning, too many have come to accept losing as normal.
Changes are coming, and as many as nine players may have worn a Canes uniform for the final time Saturday night while the Triangle’s most prominent purified water salesman may have called his final timeout behind the bench as well. There’s still no general manager to replace Ron Francis, and coach Bill Peters could depart, of his own volition or otherwise, shortly. His complete unwillingness to address what he could have done differently this season after Saturday’s game suggests he believes his future lies elsewhere.
As for Scott Darling and Cam Ward, Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk, Victor Rask and Derek Ryan and a handful of others on the fringes of the roster? Their future may lie elsewhere as well. Some of them will be back in the fall, but not all of them, and maybe in the right roles with the right leadership they’ll be able to contribute more. But the kids from Charlotte showed enough, when finally given a chance, to do as much or more.
“When you don’t win, you don’t stay together,” Williams said. “Obviously, some things will be different.”
In February, with the Hurricanes still in the thick of the playoff hunt, Williams was optimistic that his younger teammates were finally figuring out what it takes to win in the heart of the NHL season. All it would take was one good streak, one good run. They won four in a row in December, but never more three before or after that.
“At some point, you have to go on a run,” Williams said. “Every playoff team does. We could win two or three in a row, but it was never a hump we could get over.”
The main reason for that? Darling.
The Hurricanes had four two-game winning streaks, three three-game winning streaks and one four-game winning streak. Eight of the nine streaks ended with a Darling start, with seven of the eight coming with a switch in net from Ward to Darling, as powerful an indictment of Darling’s play as his impossibly abysmal .888 save percentage, worst of 47 qualifying NHL goalies.
But as big a role as Darling played in this colossal disappointment, he wasn’t alone. There were too many nights when the Hurricanes were soft, folded under pressure, made it too easy on the opposition.
Even under the circumstances, there were reminders Saturday of what actually went right this season. Jordan Staal may not have been the offensive dynamo the Hurricanes thought they were getting in 2012, but he’s a night-in, night-out workhorse center who picked up a pair of important awards Saturday, becoming only the second two-time winner of the Josef Vasciek Award for media cooperation, given by the Carolina chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, as well as winning the Steve Chiasson Award voted upon by his teammates, also for a second time.
Already the Hurricanes’ nominee for the Masterton Trophy, which recognizes sportsmanship and dedication to hockey, Staal’s commitment to the team and his role as co-captain during a season of personal tragedy and loss did not go unrecognized, and he was rewarded with a fluky goal only 19 seconds in Saturday.
Ward turned in another good performance in yet another might-have-been-his-last-at-PNC appearance, and he both adapted well to his backup role (early) and did his best to salvage the season (late), which should merit consideration to bringing him back as a backup, again, assuming the Hurricanes find a way to get rid of Darling.
“I’m realistic,” Ward said. “I know my role has changed. I accepted that at the start of the year and I really enjoyed it. I still feel like I have game to play and value to this organization, or another one.”
Sebastian Aho picked up where he left off last season and moved relatively smoothly to center in the late going, Jaccob Slavin recovered from a shaky start and Brock McGinn – absent with a suspected concussion Saturday – appeared to establish himself as a useful piece going forward. Throw in the imminent arrival of Martin Necas, and there’s some reason to be optimistic.
Just not enough of it at the moment.
“At some point, we’ve got to beat bubble teams and take the next step,” Williams said. “Enough is enough. We can’t be satisfied with being average. I hope that’s not the case, but I don’t want to settle for mediocrity.”
Let the new owner, and the new general manager (whoever that is), and the new coach (if there is one) take note. Enough is enough.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock