Justin Williams, the Hurricanes forward who returned to Raleigh two years ago and captained the team to the Eastern Conference Final last season, announced Monday he is undecided on his future and will not start the NHL season in a training camp.
Williams, 37, is a free agent and has been weighing whether or not he would retire or return to the ice for a 19th season, a decision process that included playing a round of golf last Wednesday with recently retired former Hurricanes teammate Cam Ward and Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt unsure of my aspirations with regards to hockey,” Williams said in a press release from the team. “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.”
Williams was the catalyst for Carolina’s return to the playoffs after a nine-year absence, not only producing on the ice (23 goals and 30 assists while playing all 82 regular season games) but also providing leadership to a young roster that included many players that had never reached the postseason.
The three-time Stanley Cup winner won his first title in 2006 with the Hurricanes, often playing on a line with first-year captain Brind’Amour and scored a career-high 76 points. Williams was traded to Los Angeles in 2009 and won two more Cups with the Kings, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2013.
His clutch play earned him the nickname “Mr. Game 7,” a reputation that started during his time in Carolina and carried throughout his career. He assisted on Brock McGinn’s double-overtime goal in Game 7 of the Hurricanes’ first-round series with the Washington Capitals last season that knocked out the defending Stanley Cup champions, one of four teams Williams has played for during his career.
“We appreciate Justin’s honesty and openness throughout this process, and respect his decision,” Hurricanes President and General Manager Don Waddell said in the release. “He’s been an important part of our team, but we did prepare our roster with the understanding that he might step away. We are confident in the group we’ve assembled.”
Carolina bolstered its forward corps this offseason with the addition of Erik Haula and Ryan Dzingel, and the team also expects 2017 first round pick Martin Necas to be a significant contributor in 2019-20.
“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,” Williams said.
Williams’ desire not to be a distraction is true to his leadership style as captain. While the veteran was always in his stall to answer difficult questions or after a tough loss, he would usually shun the spotlight when a teammate was deserving of recognition.
With the Hurricanes set to have their annual media day on Wednesday, Williams’ decision will certainly be a focal point of players, staff and media. His indecision is likely to leave the team’s captaincy vacant for the time being, as it was following Eric Staal’s departure in February 2016. Jordan Staal, Eric’s brother, and Justin Faulk — both still with the Hurricanes and alternate captains last season — were named co-captains in 2017 under Bill Peters, but Brind’Amour gave Williams the captaincy before last season.
Williams, a native of Couberg, Ontario, who was a first round pick of the Flyers in 2000, has 312 goals and 474 assists for 786 points in 1,244 career games, but he’s best known for his playoff heroics. In 11 postseasons, Williams had 54 points (22 goals and 32 assists) in 73 career games, including four game-winning goals.
But where he really stood out was in winner-take-all games. In nine career Game 7s, Williams’ teams were 8-1 and the winger is tied with Glenn Anderson for the most goals in those games with seven. He also holds the mark for the most points in Game 7 matchups with 15. He scored the empty-net goal in Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final to secure Carolina’s only Stanley Cup.