This was supposed to be Justin Williams’ last season in the NHL. He was pretty adamant about that when he showed up for training camp. He had won his Stanley Cups and two World Championships, made more than $50 million in career earnings, won a Conn Smythe Trophy and established himself as one of the best clutch players of his generation. And he was one of only eight players who were active this season from his 2000 NHL draft. Not bad for a kid who was once playing Jr. C hockey.
But then came the Storm Surges and the success and the relevance and the fact that, if he scores one more point this season, it will be his best offensive campaign in seven years. That changes things a little. The Hurricanes are on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. If they don’t, they’ll have nobody to blame but themselves. They’re one point ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens in the wild-card race and face the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers in their final two games of the season. The Canadiens, by contrast, have the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs on the docket, so do the math. (The Blue Jackets also have a pretty easy path, facing the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators on back-to-back nights.)
In the middle of it all is the Hurricanes captain, who has galvanized the dressing room and led the revival of a team that was once in second-last place in the Eastern Conference, nine points out of a playoff spot. It’s one thing to do it in the room, but at 37, Williams is doing more than his part on the ice. His next point will be his 53rd of the season, a total he hasn’t reached since 2010-11. If he manages to score two more goals this season, he’ll have his highest total since 2006-07.
“I think he’s the single-most important player we have,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said of Williams. “We have to have that leadership. We have such a young group that hasn’t been through any of this. You look at the way he prepares, the way he practices, the way he plays, it’s the exact same every day, whether it’s a pre-season game or Game 7 of the Stanley Cup. Every team has those guys, kind of, but we have a special one.”
Williams isn’t sure how to react when he hears those kinds or words from his coach. He’s grateful, to be sure, but he’s ensuring he makes the most of this opportunity. “It’s nice to hear, but I’m just putting everything I can into this thing this year,” Williams said. “We all are. With time not being on my side it’s more, I guess, important. I didn’t come here to just dance off into the twilight of my career and not play in the playoffs and not play important games.”
In many ways, Brind’Amour is right about Williams. He’s an enormously important player for this team and a key player in what the franchise is trying to accomplish. For years, the Hurricanes were not only bad, they were irrelevant. Williams is the one behind the Storm Surge post-game celebrations that have gained so much traction – some of it negative, most of it overwhelmingly positive – this season. When someone can convince 20 players to get out of their comfort zones and have everyone engaged the way Williams did with it this season, that’s leadership. (It turns out the Hurricanes don’t actually rehearse or practice them beforehand. They talk about what they’d like to do and someone draws it up and texts it out to everyone on the team.) On the ice, Williams has been just as invaluable. Of his 23 goals this season, 10 have put the Hurricanes into the lead in games, seven into the lead for good.
“We’re winning games, we’re becoming relevant again and we’re taking some huge steps as a franchise,” Williams said. “This is an important time. Having a coach who knows me and has given me an opportunity to succeed…time on the ice as a 37-year-old, you don’t get that very much, right? (Brind’Amour) has stuck with me and I’ve been able to be productive.”
All of which will put Williams in a very unique position this summer. His contract is up and at this point he has no idea what he’s going to do. If he returns, it will almost certainly be with the Hurricanes, who would likely be willing to give him one-year deals until his time runs out. His body of work this season suggests that might not be anytime soon, but Williams will take stock of his season and his career this summer and make his decision.
“I have no idea what the future holds and I like that,” Williams said. “At the end of the season, whenever that may be, I’ll just decompress and see where life takes me.”