By no means was it a given, and there was indeed chatter the veteran winger could end up elsewhere, but Tuesday night the long-held belief about Justin Williams’ NHL future became a reality. He has put pen to paper on a one-year deal to return to the Carolina Hurricanes for the remainder of the 2019-20 campaign.
As far as surprises go, of course, Williams’ signing in Carolina is up there with opening up your closet to find clothes. After all, when the now-38-year-old winger announced ahead of the season he was going to be stepping away from the game while he weighed his options, he did so through the Hurricanes. And in his message back in early September, Williams said he wanted the focus to be on the talented group Carolina had assembled. So, when rumblings began to surface Williams was interested in returning at some point this season, one didn’t need to possess the deductive reasoning skills of Sherlock Holmes to put the pieces of this puzzle together.
Stunning decision or not, however, getting Williams under contract for the remainder of the season is no less a win for the Hurricanes. That goes double when you consider the cap hit associated with the pact. The deal technically carries a $2-million AAV, but Williams’ cap hit amounts to league minimum – $700,000 – with potential for the former Hurricanes captain to earn another $1.3 million in performance bonuses. That’s a perfect fit for Carolina, who aren’t as cap-strapped as some other clubs but are projected to have a hair less than $1.2 million available following Williams’ signing. And if Williams earns any bonuses, the Hurricanes can deal with those later.
But it’s the impacts of the signing, not just on the budget, that are best for the Hurricanes. Though true that Williams has sat out more than half the campaign and will need some time to get up to speed, there’s no denying that the parts of his game that will benefit Carolina most aren’t predicated on his ability to keep up in a league that gets faster by the season. Williams was never the most fleet of foot. Where he succeeded was in thinking the game and getting to the proper areas as well as any secondary scorer in the NHL. That’s not an element of his game that will have disappeared overnight or after 40-plus games on the sidelines.
If there was ever proof, too, that Williams could continue to contribute that secondary scoring role, it came last season, and the Hurricanes’ hope is that Williams can recapture some of the same scoring touch he showcased during Carolina’s transformative 2018-19 campaign. Last season, he scored 23 goals and 53 points, his highest full-season point total since his 2011-12 campaign with the Los Angeles Kings, and similar production would be a boon to the middle of the Hurricanes’ lineup. Even if he takes a step back, the addition of a scorer contributing at a 15-goal, 35-point pace can be incredibly beneficial to a Carolina team that is already in the top-third of the league in per-game offensive production.
This is only to mention the offensive benefits, though, and Williams offers much more than that. On a possession-heavy Hurricanes outfit last season, Williams was among the club’s very-best play drivers and posted among the best expected goals percentages of any lineup regular. Sure, he had favorable zone starts – only two regular forwards had a higher offensive zone start percentage than Williams’ 55.1 percent – but that does little to take away from underlying numbers that were impressive across the board. And taking into account what he stands to contribute offensively and how sound his play was at both ends of the ice last season, the only question that comes as a result of Williams’ signing is one of where he fits into the lineup.
For the most part, Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour’s lines have been set, particularly the top six where Sebastian Aho has centered Teuvo Teravainen and Nino Niederreiter and Jordan Staal has played between Andrei Svechnikov and Warren Foegele. It can safely be suggested that neither of those trios will be broken up by Williams’ arrival, at least not in the immediate. The bottom six, however, seems less certain to remain unchanged. Erik Haula, Ryan Dzingel and Martin Necas have spent a considerable amount of time together, and Brind’Amour might be hesitant to alter that group, but the fourth line of Lucas Wallmark, Jordan Martinook and Brock McGinn seems readymade for a fresh face.
If it is the fourth line where Williams is slotted to start, Martinook seems the odds-on favorite to be the odd-man out. His ice time has been limited at the best of times, his production – two goals and 10 points in 28 games – has been somewhat limited and his underlying numbers are the worst of the three fourth-line forwards. Add to it that Williams needs some minutes to ease back into the lineup and it’s a logical one-for-one lineup change.
How long Williams remains playing a limited role, though, is anyone’s guess. He could be a second power play fixture and middle-six scorer by the time the post-season rolls around. And you can rest assured the playoffs are the reason Williams is back. One season after helping guide the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference final, he’s back with the intention of closing out his career with the Stanley Cup held high, and Carolina’s chances of making that a reality have only improved with the addition of their former captain.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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