Justin Williams was back in familiar surroundings Tuesday, back inside the arena where he first lifted the Stanley Cup eleven years ago. But despite the talk of reunions and familiarity, Williams said that something else is at play.
“It’s a learning process no matter what age you are. I’m learning. The other players are learning. Cam Ward is learning. Coach Peters is still learning. That’s what you have to do to remain effective.”
As the Hurricanes assembled for their annual media day, nine days before the players start medicals and ten days before the start of on-ice training camp sessions, two big themes were prevalent. One, it may take some time for the new arrivals - Williams, Scott Darling, Marcus Kruger, players coming up from Charlotte, et al. - to integrate into the system; not that it’s unusual or concerning, with a significant bit of roster turnover, but there will be a feeling-out process during the two-plus weeks of camp.
“All of us are used to changing teams,” the Canes’ new starting goaltender said. “You just come in and do your thing. The biggest thing is that we have to learn the systems. We have to learn what the coaches like and what they want us to be doing. That will all be taken care of during training camp.”
And two, the P-word isn’t verboten this year. Playoffs are on everyone’s lips. This is the year.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we have a team that’s capable of getting to the playoffs,” general manager Ron Francis said. “There’s a lot of things that happen over the course of an 82-game season. On paper we have a really good team, a very competitive team.”
That goes even - perhaps especially - for players who have never taken part in a playoff game.
“There’s been a lot of buzz, from media in other cities, from players that you train with who are on other teams. That’s the kind of thing you want to hear. It’s exciting for the team, for the fans, and for the organization,” said Jeff Skinner, entering his eighth NHL season but still waiting for his first playoff appearance. “It’s better than them not talking about you, but at the same time they’re only talking. You still have to go and do the work.”
Coach Bill Peters, who memorably laid down a gauntlet to his boss sitting next to him at the end-of-season press debriefing, was asked if Francis’ offseason moves accomplished what he was looking for. “He did a great job restocking the shelves. I thought our management group did a fantastic job addressing some needs that we had.”
But even with the raised expectations, which Jaccob Slavin said would manifest themselves more in terms of accountability to each other rather than pressure, the Canes still face questions.
Chief among them: who will be named the team’s captain?
Peters didn’t tip his hand, although he may have hinted that Williams could have the inside track. But as if to prove his point, he asked four media members sitting at a table who they would name the captain. Two said Williams. One said Skinner. One said Slavin.
And Peters? His opinion is the only newsworthy one, and he wouldn’t budge. What he did say, though, was that he’s solicited input from a broad range of sources, and every answer comes back differently. When he asks, Peters wants to know not just who, but why, and the explanations vary.
It’s a good problem to have, to be sure, but the only guarantee is that the team will have a player wearing the C this season. Peters and Francis both said that the Canes will name their captain before the end of training camp.
The internal competition isn’t just going to be for the team itself pushing for a playoff spot. Peters said that from what he’s seen of Haydn Fleury, heading to Traverse City where he will likely lead the Canes’ contingent, he’s coming into camp not expecting to be sent back to Charlotte. Lucas Wallmark made a significant impact in his short stint last season, with the Canes earning points in six of his eight NHL games. Sebastian Aho is expected to take the next step, one more year on the wing before Peters says he’s ready to play center full-time.
There are players on the roster who will be sent to the AHL simply out of a numbers game. The depth of the organization is unmatched in recent franchise history, and the players who do make the roster will have high expectations on their shoulders.
Williams, who has played for winning franchises almost exclusively in his 16-season career, knows what those expectations mean. And he isn’t backing down from what he said when he signed.
“Carolina is ready to make that next step,” Williams said. “This is a playoff team, and we expect to be there.”