With recent news indicating contract talks are heating up between the Carolina Hurricanes and former captain Justin Williams, it appears he may join the team as early as this weekend. The Hurricanes have been in the market for a top-nine forward for most of the season, as it’s been one of the few holes in an otherwise strong and balanced lineup.
Despite the search for help up front, the Hurricanes haven’t had any difficulty scoring goals. They’re eighth in the NHL in goals-for, scoring 3.35 goals per game. Adding Williams will undoubtedly be a boon to the locker room, but with the Hurricanes’ forward lines clicking so well, what kind of role can the 38-year-old realistically play?
Transitioning Back Into the Game
Williams has 1,244 NHL games under his belt. Before he made the decision to step away from hockey and ponder his career in early September, he had missed just three games in the previous eight seasons. That’s a lot of hockey for a guy nearing the end of his career, but he never showed signs of slowing down. Last season with the Hurricanes, he scored 53 points, his highest total since the 2011-12 season. The question will be, did the time off hinder his ability to play heavy minutes, and can he regain last year’s form?
When Williams stepped away from hockey, the Hurricanes Picked Jordan Staal to be captain, with Jordan Martinook and Jaccob Slavin the alternates. It could be an odd situation with Williams – last season’s captain and a fantastic leader – back in the picture, but it’s a team dynamic the Hurricanes are familiar with. He won’t be stepping on any toes.
The Hurricanes have kept a small amount of cap space open in case this situation came to fruition, and since it appears he wants to be with the Hurricanes, Williams is likely to get signed to a team-friendly discount.
He’s been skating for the past several weeks while keeping in touch with head coach Rod Brind’Amour. The two have remained in contact while Williams has been away from the team, so with recent news indicating Williams’ interest, Brind’Amour should, and probably does, have a plan in place for how to utilize him.
Who Gets Bumped Down?
With a steady flow of offense coming from Carolina’s top three lines, scoring hasn’t been a huge concern. But two veteran forwards have been cold all season and are on track for down years offensively. Staal has just five goals on the season and two in his last 21 games. Nino Niederreiter, who often plays on the top line with Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho, has two goals in his last 19 games.
Staal contributes in plenty of ways that don’t appear in the scoring column. He’s excellent defensively and is powerful along the boards. He’s a steady center who excels in the face-off dot – he leads the Hurricanes with 796 face-offs taken, which is good for sixth in the NHL, and wins 53.9 percent of them. The new captain’s $6-million salary may beg for more goal scoring, but his spot in the Hurricanes’ top nine isn’t up for debate. With a defensively responsible pivot up the middle, his presence frees up the more offensively minded wingers to focus on what they do best.
Niederreiter may be one of the guys who risks getting surpassed, but are fourth-line minutes really suitable for Niederreiter, who carries a $5.25-million cap hit? The Swiss winger may be snakebitten right now, but he had fantastic chemistry with Aho and Williams last season, where he tallied 30 points in Carolina’s final 36 games.
While Williams’ return is welcomed, it is awkward finding him a spot in the lineup. The third line of Ryan Dzingel-Erik Haula-Martin Necas has been one of the league’s best third lines this season. All three players are in their first season with the Hurricanes but complement each other beautifully and deserve to stay together. There could be a potential fit beside Aho or Staal down the road for Williams, but thrusting him into immediate top-line minutes would also be a mistake.
Where Williams Fits
If Williams is the same player he was last season, the most logical solution would be to bump Warren Foegele off the line with Staal and Andrei Svechnikov. The timing is awkward for the 23-year-old Foegele, as he’s been hot with 10 points in his last 12 games and has become comfortable on Carolina’s second line. The common trend with all three of the Hurricanes’ top forward lines is that the chemistry looks right, and a new player entering the equation is a risk to disrupt that and perhaps take away minutes from a younger player still in development.
That is why Williams should be penciled in on Line 4, where he can play sheltered minutes and be eased back into the lightning pace of the NHL. Brind’Amour has never been shy to tinker with the lines as he sees fit, but since the Hurricanes got healthy, they’ve finally been able to achieve some stability up front. Introducing Williams on the fourth line keeps the chemistry that’s developed with the Hurricanes’ top players, and eases him back into NHL shape. Here’s what the potential lines could look like:
Niederreiter – Aho – Teravainen
Svechnikov – Staal – Foegele
Dzingel – Haula – Necas
Martinook/McGinn – Wallmark – Williams
The good news is that the Hurricanes will be well equipped to deal with injury problems that may come their way – which covers the ongoing concerns of Haula’s knee – as this move to reinstate Williams is key for offensive depth.
As a result of adding Williams, the fourth line will become a revolving door of healthy scratches, with Foegele, Williams, Martinook, and Brock McGinn competing for ice time. Scratching one of these players may affect the penalty kill, which relies on their fourth line. On the other hand, the power play could see a boost with Williams in the mix, as it gives the Hurricanes a second right-handed shot up front.
Until a contract is announced and Williams is confirmed to be back with the team, it’s impossible to gauge what kind of impact he’ll have. But one of the things often said about Williams is that he’s a great hockey player, and an even better person. Even if he’s best suited for the fourth line, or needs to schedule back-to-backs off, his effect on his teammates and in the locker room is irreplaceable. If Williams is coming back for a final victory lap, he will know exactly what’s required of him to be the most help to his team.