As Justin Williams spent the off-season deciding his future, the belief was the veteran winger, who had just captained the Carolina Hurricanes back to the post-season for the first time in a decade and helped guide them to the Eastern Conference final, had two options laid out in front of him.
The first option – Door No. 1 – was a return to Carolina, one more go-round with the Hurricanes in an attempt to build on what began last season. Behind Door No. 2? Retirement. A three-time Stanley Cup champion, Conn Smythe Trophy winner and veteran of more than 1,200 games, not including another 155 playoff contests, Williams has the miles on his body. Few would have been shocked to see the 37-year-old hang up his skates. What few expected, however, is that Williams was going to head through a third door, one that next to no one had on their radar: he’s leaving, but he's not saying that his departure is for good.
On Monday, Williams announced that he will be "stepping away" from the NHL. “Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I'm accustomed to having, I've decided to step away from the game,” Williams said in a release. “It's important to me that the focus of attention is on the current, very talented group the Carolina Hurricanes have assembled, as they prepare to build on the momentum and growth we established last season."
To be sure, this could mean we’ve seen the end of Williams. Again, he’s 37 and will turn 38 the day after the Hurricanes’ season opener against the Montreal Canadiens. Again, between regular season and playoff action, he’s played nearly 1,400 games. And, again, he’s won the ultimate prize. He captured his first Stanley Cup in 2005-06 while a member of the Hurricanes, then he added two more, his second in 2011-12 and his third in 2013-14, with the Los Angeles Kings, playing the hero during the run to the latter. While he’s not a likely Hall of Famer – 312 goals and 786 points won’t earn him passage through those doors – he’d be a first-ballot entrant into the Hall of Very Good. This is all to say that Williams has nothing left to prove.
As Hurricanes GM Don Waddell said in the release associated with Williams’ announcement, Carolina has gone about this off-season building as though the veteran wouldn’t be returning, too. That’s evident in the additions the Hurricanes have made. Free agent signing Ryan Dzingel, though not near the play driver and reliable two-way talent that Williams is, was brought in to fill a middle-six scoring role. And even before the Dzingel signing, Carolina addressed another middle-six need by acquiring Erik Haula from the Vegas Golden Knights. Primarily a pivot, Haula’s versatility makes him an option on the wing in a pinch. One season removed from a 29-goal, 55-point campaign, he can put up points in bunches in the right situation.
But the lack of a definite in Williams’ announcement, the lingering never-say-never, leaves open the possibility of his return at some point. And it’s not as though we’ve never seen this scenario play out before.
During the 2016-17 season, Mike Fisher, then captain of the Predators, showed the entire league there was tread left on the tires when he posted 18 goals and 42 points in 72 games as a 36-year-old. He skated top-six minutes, finished fifth in team scoring and while he failed to really contribute offensively in the post-season – he had four assists in 20 games – he averaged upwards of 17 minutes per game as Nashville came within two wins of the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. After the defeat, and with his contract up, Fisher took time to decide his next step. In August, more than a month after free agency opened ahed of the 2017-18 season, he announced he was retiring.
Or so everyone thought.
As you’ll recall, Fisher’s retirement spanned all of five months. By the end of January 2018, Fisher made the stunning decision to rejoin the Predators, which was followed by an entire month of getting up to speed, an official one-year, $1-million contract signing in February and a debut in early March. He then played the final 16 games of the season, suited up in all but one of Nashville’s 13 playoff games and, once that run came to an end, called it a career for good.
Now, that’s not the exact blueprint Williams is following here. After all, Fisher’s retirement seemed to be the real deal at the time. But Fisher’s game plan – the timing of his return, the contract length and even the value – during that 2017-18 campaign seems like a reasonable possibility for Williams in Carolina.
Think about it this way: it offers months for Williams to continue to rest his body, recuperate and come back fresh. It also allows the Hurricanes to bring Williams in later in the season, or at some point when they might be in dire need of his services, at a lesser rate. If he’s only joining the club in the back half of the season, he might be more willing to take close to league minimum. And with Williams in the fold at that price, Carolina would have cap flexibility at the deadline, which will be important if they’re again right in the hunt for a playoff spot. Even if they only add Williams, though, he's another offensive driver who is a proven contributor. If he plays bottom-six minutes, it's a certain upgrade and mitigates the need to spend an asset to get help at the most important time of the season. Truly, it's a scenario that seemingly works out well for both sides.
Does that mean it's a virtual certainty Williams comes back? Not any more than it is a guarantee that he’s as good as retired. But we’ve seen veteran players depart in the past only to come back refreshed later in the campaign. Fisher followed the likes of Peter Forsberg, Brendan Shanahan and Mats Sundin, to name a notable few. And the open-endedness of Williams’ decision gives reason to believe he will be the next. And make no mistake that if or when the time comes, the Hurricanes will welcome him with open arms.
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