RALEIGH — Eleven years and a couple weeks removed from scoring the empty-net goal that clinched the 2006 Stanley Cup for the Carolina Hurricanes, Justin Williams in returning to Raleigh.
The team announced Saturday Williams had signed a two-year contract worth $9 million that brings back the 35-year-old winger who has since won two more Cups and earned a reputation as hockey’s top clutch player.
“It’s a fit for your family. It’s an opportunity to win. It’s familiarity with players and coaches. And it’s certainly your role on the team and how you fit in,” Williams said Saturday of picking a destination in free agency. “A lot of things go into it, but those are kind of the top four. And Raleigh hit all of them.”
Williams was traded to the Kings in the 2009, and Carolina reached the conference final that year. Williams went on to win titles in Los Angeles in 2012 and 2014 — including earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in the second run. His return to Carolina reunites him with teammates from the 2006 team. Cam Ward is still manning the net, albeit as the likely No. 2 goalie behind newcomer Scott Darling, while Rod Brind’Amour now stands behind the bench as an assistant coach.
Signs Williams could be open to returning to the Hurricanes emerged leading up to free agency. Carolina general manager Ron Francis — who captained Williams for all of six weeks in 2004 — admitted Friday he had talked to the Capitals’ pending free agent during the NHL’s allowed interview period.
“There was a lot of interest in Justin,” Francis said on Saturday. “I think it got down to three teams that were very serious, and we were obviously extremely excited when he said today that we were the team he wanted.”
Brind’Amour had given his stamp approval the day before, saying Williams would be a great addition.
“I’ve been pushing hard to get Justin. I love the guy,” Brind’Amour said. “You look at what he brings to your team. You know, he’s not going to get us 30 [goals], he’s not going get us 80 points; he’s not going to do that. But what he could do for us in this locker room is what we need.”
There was also compelling evidence of Williams’ interest: he and his wife, Kelly, had bought a home in neighboring Cary in May, an indication Williams was willing to at least make the Triangle his post-hockey home, if not more.
“It was a long-term play, and you know, we bought it and said maybe perhaps we might be there one day,” Williams said. “I really didn’t think it would be this summer, but again you have no idea what’s going to happen in free agency.”
It turns out the interest was mutual. Williams — an Ontario native with more than 1,000 games played and nearly 700 career points — was up for the challenge of helping return Carolina to the glory days he had been a part of, while Francis was looking for exactly the type of on-ice and locker room leadership Williams can provide.
“He’s shown in the big games he rises to that level he needs to get to to be successful,” Francis said. “And on a team with a lot of young players, we think he’s going to have a huge influence in our locker room in getting those guys to understand what it takes to be successful.”
On top of all that, Williams is still an effective and reliable point producer. He’s missed just three games in the last six seasons and been a consistent 20-goal, 50-point player during his time in Washington and Los Angeles.
He put up his best numbers in Carolina, where he had his only two 30-goal seasons. However Williams’ career has never been defined by statistics, but rather his playoff heroics. His moniker as “Mr. Game 7” came thanks to his performance in hockey’s biggest games — in eight playoff Game 7s, Williams has seven goals and seven assists. He won his first Game 7 in 2003 with the Flyers (he had a goal and two assists), but his legacy as the game’s top clutch player truly started in Carolina. He had a goal and two assists in Game 7 of the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals against the Buffalo Sabres, then added the empty-net clincher as Carolina won the Cup in front of its home fans over the Edmonton Oilers in Game 7.
That carried over to Los Angeles. He scored twice in Game 7 against San Jose in the second round of the 2013 postseason, then bit the Sharks again the next year, scoring twice in Game 4, adding three points in Game 6, and registering an assist in Game 7 to help the Kings complete their rally from a 3-0 series deficit. He had a goal and an assist in both Game 7 wins over Anaheim and Chicago that season, leading the Kings to a Cup Final appearance where they dispatched the Rangers in five games (he opened the scoring in that Cup-clincher, too).
Not until this year’s second-round Game 7 defeat to Pittsburgh, the eventual champions, had he lost a Game 7.Neither coach Bill Peters nor Francis were ready to hand Williams the captaincy yet, but he could be an ideal choice for a young team.
“We’ll talk about that when the time’s right. … But he’s a guy who’s obviously worn letters wherever he’s been,” Peters said. “He’s been a leader, and he’ll come in here and be a leader also.”
His signing proved costly, but his addition makes Carolina, with him and Ward, just one of three teams in the league (Chicago, Pittsburgh) with two former playoff MVPs on their roster.
The first goal will be to make the postseason, something Carolina hasn’t done since the year Williams was traded away. From there, as Williams and the Hurricanes of the past have proven, anything can happen.
“You have to go through trying years and failure before you get to your goal,” Williams said. “And Carolina, there’s no question — they haven’t made the playoffs since 2009, so that’s a long time. “We’re done losing. It’s time to climb the ladder and get relevant.”