On the first day of free agency, the Washington Capitals lost three of their biggest name players from their 2016-17 President Trophy winning roster. Defenseman Karl Alzner signed with the Montreal Canadiens, trade deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk signed with the New York Rangers, and forward Justin Williams inked a deal with the Carolina Hurricanes – the team he won his first Stanley Cup with.
Impressing with his spectacular play in Washington, Williams earned a salary increase in the form of a two-year, $9 million contract with the Canes, which included a $5 million salary in 2017-18 and a $4 million salary in 2018-19. Williams’ cap hit will be $4.5 million.
Saturday afternoon, Williams spoke about his “excitement” about re-joining Carolina, but also lamented his disappointment on not striking a deal with the Capitals.
“There’s a lot of emotions,” Williams said. “It’s hard to describe every one of them. I think excitement is one of the big ones. Certainly once we were getting close to a deal there was a smile on my face and my wife’s face. We’re excited for the opportunity. I’m certainly excited to work with a coaching staff that I’m pretty familiar with and a team that I feel is trending up in the right direction for sure.”
Since winning the Stanley Cup and the Southeast Division crown during the 2005-06 season, the Carolina Hurricanes have faded and endured an unprecedented stretch of mediocrity. The Hurricanes have not made the playoffs since the 2008-09 season, and have not tallied more than 87 standings points over the last six seasons. During the 2016-17 campaign, the Canes opted not to have a captain and finished the season eight points out of the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference.
Williams, who was a leader in the Capitals locker room, believes he can change that.
“You have to go through trying years and failure before you get to your goal,” Williams said. “Carolina, there’s no question, they haven’t been in the playoffs since 2009 – that’s a long time. We’re done losing. It’s time to climb the ladder and get relevant. As I said, I really like this team. I like where it’s going. You can ask anyone within the NHL who has played against the Hurricanes, they are a tough, tough team to play against. I experienced that in Washington and I want to help in any way I can to get this team where it should be.”
The 35-year-old Williams scored 24 goals and tallied 48 points in a top-six role with the Capitals last season. The 24 goals were the most Williams scored since the 2006-07 season with Carolina. The Cobourg, Ontario native finished fourth on the team in playoff scoring with nine points in 13 games.
But it’s Williams’ heroics in the playoffs that really moves the needle. Williams has scored 36 goals and 94 points in 140 career playoff games. Nicknamed Mr. Game Seven for his clutch elimination game scoring, Williams has won three Stanley Cups and was given the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2014.
“There are a lot of guys who want to be the guy in Game Seven but have a tough time rising to that level,” Hurricanes general manager Francis said. “This guy has done it time and time again. We had him in our organization, so we know him as a person. The character is outstanding, and the leadership qualities are there. I fully expect this guy to be a guy who can step into the locker room and drag the guys in the direction we need to be taken.”
But Williams’ first choice was not necessarily the Hurricanes. Williams reportedly met with the Capitals several times during the offseason, trying to see if the two sides could swing a deal. Williams hinted that the writing appeared to be on the wall when the team announced an eight-year contract extension with TJ Oshie, who tied Alex Ovechkin in goals last season (33).
“When did I know I wasn’t returning to Washington? I think it’s tough to tell because as you probably know, Brian MacLellan doesn’t really lead on very much,” Williams said. “All of a sudden, he does something and it comes out of nowhere.”
“I hadn’t heard from Washington very much,” Williams continued. “We had heard from them through the process, but certainly not as much as the other teams. They said they wanted to sign me, but sometimes it doesn’t work out [where] both sides are able to get it done. I have nothing but good things to say about Washington. They believed in me, and we had a couple great years, although not successful at what we wanted to attain.”
During Williams’ two seasons in Washington, the team lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs – both times in the second round.
Williams said that nearly a dozen teams were interested in his services and that his agent was very aggressive in the days leading up to July 1 to narrow down their options.
“I didn’t want to wait in free agency,” Williams said. “I wanted to have something done by the deadline. We kind of set an internal deadline with our camp and surprisingly, being two years older than I was the last time I was a free agent, there seemed to be a lot more traffic this time. Definitely on the higher side of ten teams inquired and you never know which ones are serious until it’s crunch time.”
In the evening after signing with his new team, Williams took to his Twitter account to express his enthusiasm about returning home and thank the Capitals for two memorable years.
Beyond excited to begin the season and put the @NHLCanes jersey back on again. Watch out for the canes this year…👍🏒
— Justin Williams (@JustinWilliams) July 1, 2017
Thank you to the @Capitals organization and their fans for 2 good years. Didn't reach our goal but will cherish the time I spent there
— Justin Williams (@JustinWilliams) July 1, 2017
Williams will now get consideration as the Hurricanes’ new captain during the 2017-18 season, but leaves a scoring and leadership vacuum in Washington that no one player can completely fill.
“I’m not coming in here to try and be Mr. Head Honcho,” Williams said. “I’m just trying to come in and fit in and be myself. And I think that’s what Carolina wants.”
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