Just in time for a Labor Day brunch, the Carolina Hurricanes announced that Justin Williams would not be joining the team. The wording was interesting in that it did not use the word “retire.” The title read, “Williams Announces Break from NHL.” Inside the team news release, the words “…step away from the game” were used. The word “unsure” was also included and Williams made mention of just not being physically or mentally ready at this point.
I recommend reading the full news release as it has a good amount of meaningful comments instead of boilerplate terms.
Where Justin Williams left off after the 2018-19 season
From the very first press conference that Justin Williams did (but Bill Peters somehow missed), he returned to help boost the Carolina Hurricanes back to NHL relevancy. With a contagiously fun vibe around the team established, a return to the playoffs and even playoff success, one could make a strong case that Justin Williams had accomplished what he returned to do. A case could be made that he had done his part to change the trajectory of the team and that timing was right for him to retire from the NHL on a high note. And if that is ultimately what happened (or happens?), Justin Williams will be no less of a great as a Carolina Hurricanes player.
But at the same time, there was very clearly a role left for him to play as the team’s ascent hopefully continued in 2019-20. The impact of his leadership as a captain was unmistakable and an integral part of the team’s success. In addition, the players who could be candidates to next wear the C long-term are maybe a year or two away and could ideally use another year or two of tutelage with less pressure. And not to be missed was the fact that in addition to leadership, Williams was still a very productive player finishing second on the team with 23 goals and third with 53 points.
He entered the off-season with an incredibly strong case to retire but an equally compelling on to return.
As this situation crept into and past August, it became increasingly obvious that this (not playing at least) would ultimately be the result. After an arduous regular season with three full months of playoff-ish pressure followed by three playoff series with 15 more games, Williams was no doubt fully spent both emotionally and physically. I actually think that the Torey Krug game against the Bruins maybe showed him hitting a wall after spending everything he had. At the beginning of the summer, I would have pegged the odds of a return at 60 percent and left them there through mid-July. But at the point where most of the free agency settled, I think the probably of a Justin Williams return inched downward by the day to the point where I would have pegged it at 20 percent or less last week. Williams’ words in the press release seem to show a player who had not yet accepted retirement as the next step but who had very clearly not found what it took to start the 2019-20 season. Though like everyone else, I would have preferred an earlier decision, I actually have a ton of respect for Williams today. Many players would have taken the $4 million and prepared to do their best. And at a bare minimum Williams would have been a reasonably productive middle forward who was a positive in the locker room. But Williams knows what 100 or 110 percent is and what it requires and that is the level that he holds himself too. So it makes complete sense that he would pull up short of collecting another paycheck and being good enough.
The door that remains cracked open for a return
The most newsworthy part of Sunday’s announcement was the wording that stopped well short of retirement. With a change of heart, fire in the belly or whatever, Williams clearly left the door open for a return. That begs the question under what circumstances that could be possible. Like other free agents, Williams still has until December 1 to sign a new contract. In a scenario where the Hurricanes name a new captain, pick up where they left off and rise up the standings in the first half of the season, a Williams’ return seems unlikely. The risk on the front end is the leadership transition and change in culture that Williams helped drive. If that transitions fine with his absence, I am not sure it makes a ton of sense for him to step back into it. If on the other hand, the team struggles under the pressure of much higher expectations for the 2019-20 season and at the same time Williams finds he misses NHL hockey more than he enjoys spending time with his family, just maybe the door opens for a mid-season return. For a player who will turn 38 when the season starts in early October, a shortened season could be a positive if the team can survive it. And if the leadership is still needed, maybe that is what brings him back to make sure the bridge he started to lay in 2018-19 is not swept away.
One could also paint a scenario whereby the team is mostly fine without him, but he returns anyway sort of as a trade deadline veteran addition. Williams is exactly the kind of player that teams are looking to add for the stretch run and playoffs, so a scenario in which he returns but not necessarily reclaim a top leadership role is feasible. But I think the situation where Williams is maybe not so much needed but returns anyway is less likely. I feel like he returns only if a change in heart is paired with team really needing him to make sure what he built in 2018-19 is not lost. I guess time will tell on that.
The captaincy and Justin Williams’ leadership
I am on record as saying that the team could really use another year with Justin Williams as the captain for two primary reasons. First, with 2018-19’s success comes expectations and with that comes both more pressure and a different kind of pressure. When the Hurricanes inevitably hit a rough patch as always happens over the course of a long 82-game season, I think having Williams to lead past that one last difficult hurdle could be critical. In addition, my opinion is that the next long-term captain will not come from assistants Jordan Staal or Justin Faulk but rather from the next generation of younger players. As such, I think another year of seeing how Williams goes about the job would be invaluable, and I also think that group of players could benefit from another year of two of getting ready before having that heavy weight thrust upon them.
On July 8, I noted that I was higher on the importance of Williams’ leadership for 2019-20 than many in this article.
My article from May 28 shortly after the playoffs ended also had similar comments on Williams’ importance for 2019-20.
It is not that I think the Hurricanes are necessarily doomed with Justin Williams. Rather, I just see it as a significant point of risk and definitely something to watch closely when the team hits a rough patch.
Options and considerations for the next captain
The burning question now is who will be named the next captain of the Carolina Hurricanes. Most common in a situation like this is to bump one of the previous alternates up to wearing the C. The options for that path would be Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk who were the co-captains prior to Williams being given that title. The most logical next in line would probably be Staal. And while Staal and Faulk deserve credit for their role in 2018-19’s succes, I personally do not see either as the next captain of the team at least long-term. No doubt there were issues with the dual captaincy under Bill Peters, but I just do not have either as a choice to return to the captaincy. Instead, I think the next long-term captain of the team should and eventually will come from the younger group. Had you asked me a year ago, I would have had Jaccob Slavin and Sebastian Aho as an equal chance to be the next leader, but increasingly I think the Hurricanes are destined to become Aho’s team. It was not random coincidence that Sebastian Aho’s locker room stall was suddenly right next to Williams’ where he could hear the majority of Williams’ interviews and see firsthand how he carried himself and interacted with others day in and day out. But the question for me is whether Aho is ready and whether his time is now. My strong preference per previous articles and my comments above was to have Justin Williams lead through one more season and making the sometimes difficult transition from being a feel-good team defying the odds to facing the pressure of being a team that is expected to do well. But here we are.
I think another interesting possibility for short-term would be Jordan Martinook. He would sort of be coming from off the leadership depth chart, but the way he carries himself and scores incredibly high for people IQ is exactly what a team wants in a captain. And as more of a depth player who does not have massive expectations in terms of raw score sheet production, he could maybe better add that responsibility without being weighed down by it. The issue with Martinook is that he probably even more than a ‘we are going to the next generation’ decision for Aho or Slavin could rub Staal and/or Faulk the wrong way.
So long story short, I seem to have just built a field of five contenders with some complexity to it.
In Rod We Trust
Important to note is that the person who will ultimately make this decision is Rod Brind’Amour. He obviously knows a thing or two about being a captain. He also knows this group and locker room better than anyone having been inside the room with the group pre-dating Justin Williams’ arrival and working with the team under Bill Peters. So in terms of making the best decision possible given the options available, one has to like the team’s chance of getting it right. One also has to like the chances of the next captain growing successfully into the role with Brind’Amour there as coach and a great example fresh in his memory from Williams in 2019-20. So though I will exercise my right to have an opinion on the matter and will try to make a case for it, it is also important to recognize that this is very clearly a situation where the decision-maker has both better information and better experience/skill set to make the best decision possible.
My two cents
I lean in two directions that have same ultimate outcome a couple years down the road. At the simplest level I like Sebastian Aho but admittedly with reservations and consideration for proper timing.
I lean away from doing the obvious and promoting Staal or Faulk. My hunch is that Brind’Amour will similarly see them as complementary leadership and not the type to wear the C. But as I said above, if Brind’Amour sees it differently, I have to take that as him having a better read on that player’s capabilities based on the greater amount of information he has.
Disclaimer about not being in the locker room aside, I really think that Sebastian Aho is the team’s next captain (possibly eventually). Important is to to decide if he is ready for this extra responsibility right now or if it instead has the potential to weigh him down. I would have preferred another year, but players with leadership abilities tend to be able to grow into the leadership roles ahead of schedule.
Part of me really likes the idea of putting Jordan Martinook in the the role for one year and telling him on the front end that his job is to continue tutoring and paving the path for Aho. If this is handled correctly, naming Aho maybe next season would not be a demotion for Martinook but instead would mean that he had successfully accomplished his goal. I suppose it is possible to do the same thing with Staal though I feel like for him it might still slight him not to just give him the role permanently. But the issue with Martinook as an option could be the statement about Staal and Faulk’s leadership if they get bypassed for a temporary who is also a veteran and not part of the next wave of players.
Justin Williams the player
Most of the conversation about Justin Williams’ decision over the next few days will focus on the captaincy and leadership. I think that is generally on target. But also to be considered is replacing him as a player. As noted above, when all was said and done, Williams was the team’s #2 goal scorer and #3 points producer for the regular season. Over the course of the summer much has been said about the team gaining forward depth, but that analysis usually had Williams penciled into the lineup. Without Williams, the team is down two top 9 forwards in Micheal Ferland and up two top 9 forwards in Erik Haula and Ryan Dzingel. The team does have potential upside in gains from young players like Andrei Svechnikov and Warren Foegele and also Martin Necas if he can build on his strong AHL season but at the NHL level. But in terms of proven NHL scoring, Williams puts the team back to two steps forward two steps back and roughly the same amount of proven scoring.
Does this make room for another addition?
The biggest domino effect for the Canes roster could be Saku Maenalanen. My speculation awhile back was that he might be holding out for a one-way contract or otherwise considering a return to Finland. Williams’ decision pushes the team back down to 11 proven NHL forwards. Martin Necas would make 12, and there could be room at the NHL level, possibly even on a one-way deal, for Maenalanen now.
The much bigger move would be trying to capitalize on what is generally a buyer’s market right now. In trying to make the Mitch Marner math work, could Kyle Dubas be forced to deal someone like Kasperi Kapanen for futures? Maple Leafs fans would scream at the suggestion, but we are now in September. If there was a way with the current math equation, one would figure the deal would be done.
Also in a Leafs vein, could Jake Gardiner be a bargain basement add. To be clear, I do not see the Hurricanes adding a higher cost defenseman with term to the mix. The team has decent depth for the third pairing. But if Gardiner suddenly becomes available on a one-year ‘prove it’ type deal for say $2 million, he could help the Hurricanes get back to five top four defenseman like 2018-19 and also add much-needed power play help.
Williams’ decision could also be relevant to Jesse Puljujarvi who I discussed in Friday’s Daily Cup of Joe.
I would not be keen on spending all of the $4 million salary cap available nor would I necessarily be looking to acquire players at a fair market value. But just before training camp can sometimes be a great time for buying at pennies on the dollar (reference Teuvo Teravainen trade).
What say you Canes fans?
1) How big of an issue/risk/concern is Justin Williams’ departure from a leadership standpoint?
2) What factors would you consider and who would you name as the next Hurricanes captain?
3) What do you think about the possibility of a mid-season return for Justin Williams?