Those waiting on a decision from Carolina Hurricanes captain Justin Williams finally have one, although it’s not so much a “yes” or “no” answer on coming back for another season. The Hurricanes have announced on Williams’ behalf that the 37-year-old is “taking a break” from playing hockey and will not begin the 2019-20 campaign with the team:
This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt unsure of my aspirations with regards to hockey. 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.
It is important to note that neither Williams nor the team have used the word “retirement” in discussing this announcement or his future plans. It very well could be that Williams will contemplate calling it a career officially during this break, but more likely he is keeping his options open for a reunion later in the season. The situation is very similar to that of Mike Fisher and the Nashville Predators in 2017-18. Following a run to the Stanley Cup Final, Fisher opted to extend his off-season and maximize his rest and rehab before re-joining the team in February for the stretch run and postseason. The same scenario could be in the cards for Williams, whose comments make it clear that he is still committed to the Hurricanes as Fisher was to the Predators.
Of course, if this is it for Williams, he has certainly done enough in his decorated career. A three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Hurricanes and Los Angeles Kings, “Mr. Game Seven” is one of the most clutch postseason performers in NHL history and has a Conn Smythe Trophy to show for it. He’s also transformed into an iron man of sorts late in his career, missing just three regular season games since the end of the 2010-11 season. Williams is also one of the NHL’s quintessential leaders; a respected presence on the ice and in the locker room wherever he plays. A hard-working and dedicated player, if Williams feels 786 points in 1244 games and three titles isn’t enough, he will definitely be back. But he doesn’t owe the hockey world anything and could easily hang up his skates and move into a coaching or front office role with the Hurricanes if he so chooses.
Williams’ next step remains to be seen, but for now Carolina will have to enter the season without him and lean on the young core that the captain speaks so highly about. The Hurricanes have less than $2.5MM in projected cap space per CapFriendly and would have needed to get creative to re-sign Williams prior to the start of the season. His decision will allow the team to re-focus their efforts into re-signing forward Saku Maenalanen and defenseman Roland McKeown, who remain unsigned restricted free agents. As Carolina stockpiles some cap space over the course of the season, they should be more than capable of adding Williams back to the roster if his passion for the game returns in time for another shot at the Cup.