Luke DeCock

Mr. Game 7 Justin Williams sends career decision to OT, leaving Canes captainless

Leave it to Mr. Game 7 to send his career decision to overtime.

When the Carolina Hurricanes last month started to press Justin Williams for an answer on whether he intended to return or retire after a summer spent mulling, they weren’t expecting “none of the above.” That’s exactly what Williams gave them Monday, 11 days before training camp physicals, with his decision to “step away” while still leaving the door open for a midseason comeback.

There’s some precedent for that: Mike Fisher retired from the Nashville Predators in August of 2017, only to unretire six months later and rejoin the team for the final 28 regular-season and playoff games with limited success before re-retiring for good after the season. Fisher was 37. Williams turns 38 in October. Efforts to reach Williams for comment Monday were unsuccessful, but the wording of the release — “will not join team for start of 2019-20 season” — leaves it open to consideration.

Either way, it’s an all-or-nothing decision Williams wasn’t ready or willing to make, and it creates an odd set of circumstances for the team without him. While Williams said he wanted to “focus the attention” on the team, this unavoidably extends the summer will-he-or-won’t-he debate into the fall. Indefinitely, even.

Until (or if) that changes, the Hurricanes will continue to operate, as they did all summer, as if Williams won’t be back.

“We were prepared for this,” Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon said Monday. “Although we’re disappointed, we’re excited about the opportunity it gives other people. We planned for this. This is what we expected.”

On the ice, the team has been built as if Williams would not return, and the roster is now officially set for training camp. It would be better with Williams, who by all appearances still has something left to give, but it’s not catastrophic.

Off the ice, it will be fascinating to see whether the Hurricanes name a new captain, although without an obvious successor there’s no real hurry.

It only underlines Williams’ value to the team that the Hurricanes were willing to let this linger even this long. Most teams would have closed the door on most players at this point. But Williams has earned this kind of respect, even if the situation is less than ideal. As an unrestricted free agent, there’s really no contractual deadline for him to sign if he decides to step back in. This will continue to hang over the season as much as it hung over the offseason.

Where do the Hurricanes stand, sans Williams? Their top three lines are essentially set, with Sebastian Aho, Jordan Staal and Erik Haula down the middle; Nino Niederreiter, Ryan Dzingel and either Brock McGinn or Warren Foegele on the left; and Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas on the right, although obviously many of those wings could swing back and forth.

The net effect: Williams’ absence on the right leads to a reshuffling that indirectly opens a top-nine spot for McGinn or Foegele on the left while significantly reducing the odds either is traded prior to opening night.

There’s not a gaping void, as long as Necas can handle the NHL this time around — and won’t be asked to bear the additional responsibility of playing center — and either McGinn or Foegele can pick up where they left off in the postseason.

The Hurricanes have to replace the 40 goals of Williams and Micheal Ferland. The additions of Dzingel and Haula and the reasonable sophomore improvement of Svechnikov should more than cover it, while Williams’ departure opens a spot for the right-shot Necas on the power play.

Leadership remains the big question, and while it’s hard to see Williams walking in off the street and resuming the captaincy after a half-season off, if that’s the scenario, who else would wear it? Both Staal and Justin Faulk thrived when relieved of that co-responsibility, Aho isn’t ready and Jordan Martinook doesn’t have a big enough role, as good as he is in the dressing room.

That may be the toughest decision Rod Brind’Amour faces over the next month. Williams may not be making a decision right away, but Brind’Amour doesn’t have that luxury.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.