RALEIGH, N.C. – The Carolina Hurricanes will begin the 2019-2020 campaign without a captain.
On Monday, Justin Williams, as announced by the team, was going to “step away from the National Hockey League”.
Following an exceptionally successful season that submerged Carolina into the NHL playoffs for the first time in 10 years, ending with a run to the Eastern Conference Final, the team’s 16th captain ended his term in leading the club.
Or, it could be termed suspended his term, less than a year from the Sept. 13, 2018 date the honor was bestowed on him.
The wait is over, or is it?
It was one of the final announcements the team had to make to give some sense of what to expect when training camp opens on that very same date, next Friday.
Waiting for so long for Williams to decide whether he would return, being an unrestricted free agent, it’s not known whether he had even been offered a deal to return – no word has been spoken on any of that at all.
Sure, general manager Don Waddell and head coach Rod Brind’Amour indicated repeatedly that they would want the three-time Stanley Cup winner to return.
As the summer dragged on, they played along with Williams’ delay in making a definitive decision.
At some point, something had to be said from either side, so Williams complied.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt unsure of my aspirations with regards to hockey,” Williams said.
“For as long as I can remember, my whole off-season until this point has been hockey and doing what was necessary to prepare for the upcoming season. 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.
“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.”
Tough skates to fill
Making a number of offseason moves, Carolina’s roster has changed quite significantly in complexion, enough so that the lack of a captain and the experience Williams presents will impact this team.
The intangibles that he presented as the captain, the leader, were voiced and reinforced in many discussions with other players in the room throughout last season.
“The thing about being a leader is that the best ones aren’t trying to be leaders, you don’t have to be a leader, now-former forward and Charlotte Checkers captain Patrick Brown said following practice back in May following the team’s second-round sweep of the New York Islanders.
“You just be yourself and be the best ‘you’ that you can be, and you’ll fit in with any group of guys. I think that my transition from Charlotte to here has been great. In Charlotte, maybe I’m a bit more vocal and have a bit more responsibility in terms of ice time and things like that, but really I’m just the same person here, I’m just on a different line with a different amount of minutes. I’m just workin’ as hard as I can and tryin’ to fit in with the guys and be a good teammate.”
Brown’s words praising Williams’ leadership style and impact were prophetic.
Not long after the Hurricanes were swept by the Boston Bruins, he returned to Charlotte and helped lead the Checkers to the AHL franchise’s first-ever Calder Cup championship, finishing with 10 points (5g, 5a) in 11 playoff games.
He preached the gospel of ‘Willy’ almost exactly to the word – “just be yourself and be the best you that you can be” – words and mindset the captain used when redirecting criticism of the Storm Surge during its infancy last November.
That’s gonna leave a mark
Williams left his mark on Brown, an undrafted high-pedigreed college player, a former captain and NCAA champion at Boston College, who also became a free agent in the offseason.
Interestingly enough, he wasn’t re-signed by the Hurricanes.
Instead, the Vegas Golden Knights recognized his utility and value and signed him to a two-year deal, and as a result Charlotte will also need to eventually fill its captain position.
Staying true and accurate to his word is a hallmark of Williams’ persona, if you’ve been around him to see it in his eyes up close.
If he says he’s undecided, he’s undecided.
However, he’s well thought out, and there are deeper reasons that he hasn’t revealed yet for coming to and remaining at his current impasse.
You’re in or you’re out – not half-way.
Regardless, for the Carolina Hurricanes, he’s out and there is a deep and critical void that must be filled as a result.
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