Justin Williams, the 37-year-old captain of the Carolina Hurricanes, announced that he is stepping away from the NHL for the time being.
After months of speculation and rumor over what the Hurricanes captain would decide to do with his career, Williams announced on Sept. 2 that while not fully retiring, he would not be attending training camp nor starting the season with the Hurricanes.
"This is the first time in my life that I've felt unsure of my aspirations with regards to hockey," said Williams in a Canes press release. "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 is a three-time Stanley Cup champion, having won the coolest trophy in sports in 2006 with the Hurricanes and in 2012 and 2014 with the Los Angeles Kings. Williams also won the Conn Smythe in 2014 as the MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He has served as the captain of the Hurricanes for nearly a year since Carolina head coach Rod Brind’Amour decided to do away with the two-captain system and named Williams the only captain.
Williams was brought back to Carolina for the start of the 2017-2018 season after signing a two-year, $9 million contract at the opening of free agency.
After the Hurricanes’ ninth straight year of missing the playoffs at the conclusion of the 2017-2018 season, a lot of leadership was shaken up. Both Brind’Amour and Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell were promoted to their roles on May 8, 2018 after the new ownership under Canes owner Tom Dundon decided to shake things up. The third most prominent shakeup was the naming of Williams as captain.
Williams knew that the team was struggling to find an identity and that fan turnout was lackluster at best. In response, Williams decided to start the Storm Surge, an on-ice team celebration after every Canes home victory, as a way to engage more with fans after home wins. The gimmick worked, and soon everyone was talking about the Hurricanes’ new Storm Surge celebration.
However, this isn’t the only way Williams’ legacy as captain was highlighted. Never afraid to say exactly how he felt or what he felt needed to be addressed, his honesty and starkness won over many, as he was firm in that his only concern was winning hockey games and he had no time for those upset over the team’s celebrations or doubts of its competitive level.
On the ice, Williams had initially suffered from a bad start to the season, as rumors started to swirl that he was losing too much of an edge. However, Williams found his game on the Canes top line alongside centerman Sebastian Aho and trade deadline acquisition winger Nino Niederreiter.
The Hurricanes’ new top line started lighting up the league and helped propel the Hurricanes to its first playoff berth in nearly a decade. Williams put up 23 goals and 53 points last season, his most in seven years. However, his game takes a real toll on the body. Williams has not missed a game since returning to the Canes in 2017 and hasn’t missed more than three combined games in the past eight seasons.
Couple that with Williams’ style of play — going hard to the net, gritty forechecking and antagonizing the opposition into drawing penalties — and those full seasons will break any body down.
"We appreciate Justin's honesty and openness throughout this process, and respect his decision," said Waddell in the same press 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."
Williams has earned this period of uncertainty and by no means owes it to anybody to choose immediately. This juncture of his life is critical, and he decided to make the decision now so that the doubt wouldn’t be floating around in the locker room.
"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’ statement reads.
With Williams’ absence, a notable hole opens up in the Hurricanes leadership. It’s no surprise that Williams had complete control over the locker room and was immensely respected as a captain. Even Brind’Amour, who was at one time Williams’ captain, took solace in the level head of Williams at times when he was uncertain about the job of head coach. Williams was an integral piece of that 2018-19 Carolina team.
Now it’s a new season, and the reality that Williams could very well not return is foreseeable. But Williams is not retired yet, and the Hurricanes won’t jump to name a new captain even if he retires this year, but another alternate or two may float around. However, it doesn’t take a stitched-on letter to show leadership, and already a few guys in the room have set themselves aside.
Players like forward Jordan Martinook, whose charismatic attitude, unwavering willpower and defense of the smaller players on the Hurricanes roster has already made him a fan favorite after only a single year with Carolina. Especially with the big-brother mentorship role he has taken with second-year forward Andrei Svechnikov, it is apparent that Martinook knows how to lead, and with a fresh two-year deal, one could see Martinook potentially obtaining an “A” as an alternate captain this year.
Defenseman Jaccob Slavin is another player that could help fill the void in Williams’ absence. Already having spent some time wearing the “A” last year, Slavin is the best defenseman on the Hurricanes. Slavin is a calm and level head that can help maintain order in the Carolina locker room.
As the longest-tenured Cane, defenseman Justin Faulk also has a responsibility to represent the team. The way his game elevated in the 2018-2019 season and especially in the playoffs shows maturation as a player. Faulk seemed more engaged as a player last year, even having some stints as a makeshift goaltender more than a few times as he sacrificed his body to make desperation saves. Faulk could be ready to take on more of an active leadership role as one of the oldest and longest-serving Canes.
Finally, centerman Jordan Staal is the other former co-captain who has shown he can be a true leader. However, Staal has two sides to him. One is a softer player who has a talent for plays along the boards and feeding teammates while also having periods of disappearing as a figurehead during the long playoff drought the Hurricanes suffered.
The other is angry dad mode. Staal quickly took on this role in the playoffs and was all-in on protecting his teammates, especially the younger core. Staal was not afraid to go after the likes of Washington Capitals enforcer Tom Wilson and delivered quite a few bone-rattling checks throughout the playoffs. When engaged, Staal can be a devastating powerhouse due to his size and strength, but it is up to him to show that side of him to stand up for his teammates both during the game and in moments off the ice.
With Williams’ potential permanent retirement looming, the Hurricanes may not just be losing a top-liner, it may also be losing one of its greatest leaders, and it's up to those who remain to carry the legacy and ethics he re-energized in not only the team but its fan base.