Will he or won’t he?
Justin Williams is coming off of his best season since 2011-2012 with 23 goals and 53 points and played back-to-back 82-game seasons since his last stint with the Carolina Hurricanes, in the Stanley Cup winning season and the subsequent one. The 37 year old, a veteran of 20 NHL seasons, poured everything he had into last season, and won’t come back unless he can give everything he has again. Now he has a difficult decision to make on whether to come back for another season as the Hurricanes captain. It’s August 7, we’re a month away from training camp, and we’re still waiting for a decision.
While GM Don Waddell has been planning as if Williams is not coming back by bolstering the roster with more top-six forwards, the loss of the captain would still leave a large hole where it counts most: leadership. That said, even if he does re-sign for next season, it simply kicks this problem down the road a season, so it’s an impending hole regardless of the signing that the Canes need to look at sooner rather than later.
If any team knows how important leadership is, it’s the Carolina Hurricanes. Since the departure of former captain Eric Staal, the Canes struggled to find their way and rise to the occasion in big moments. This largely kept them around .500 and just outside of the playoff bubble.
During that same time period, head coach Bill Peters also experimented by making the two most tenured players on the team, Justin Faulk and Jordan Staal, co-captains — which did not go well, to say the least. The split of duties was awkward as it was based on home and away games, so the voice in the room changed on a regular basis.
Both co-captains, and especially Faulk, were seemingly paralyzed by splitting the duties and not having full authority to command the locker room. After Williams was named captain last offseason, both players admitted they felt relieved to no longer have the title of co-captain and admitted that the situation was awkward.
A year belatedly, Williams ascended to the captaincy and was able to take control of the team. It also helped that he was a former teammate with head coach Rod Brind’Amour for three seasons. They were constantly on the same page, with Brind’Amour even admitting that he sometimes didn’t have to do too much coaching because Williams would say things on the ice before he could.
Williams bridged the gap between the locker room and the coach’s office. He could deliver the message to his colleagues rather than having a coach come in and be the bad guy. As a result, there was total buy-in into a new system, something that the team hadn’t seen with previous coaches. The success was immediate.
Throughout the Canes’ previous ten seasons when they faced a do or die game, they often failed to rise to the occasion. With Williams leading the locker room, the Canes overcame that hurdle for the first time since the 2008-2009 season, both throughout the season and in the first round when they won multiple win-or-go-home games, including a double overtime Game 7 to advance to the second round. (On a goal, naturally, that Williams set up.)
So, in a world where Williams calls time on his career, where does this team go? Thankfully most of the young core now has playoff experience and knows what it takes to go deep in the playoffs, something the team lacked throughout the lineup before last season. But who is ready to step up — and is a single post-season experience enough to lead a team?
I think if there is one thing that the organization has learned from the past is that they must name a captain. They cannot go another year with only alternates or a weird multi captain system, but who can they look to?
Staal is an obvious candidate since he is the longest tenured Hurricanes player and the most senior vet on the team. He one of the only players on the team to have won a Stanley Cup, albeit a long time ago. Staal has given everything to the team, never giving up when they were in the middle of the Great Drought. He is also signed through the 2024-2025 season, so he is here to stay for years to come.
The issue with Staal is that in the role of co-captain he really struggled. He didn’t take charge of the locker room and make the push to be the voice. He was also one of the many co-alternate captains that were non-factors after his brother left. So if he wasn’t able to establish himself in all those other circumstances, it’s fair to wonder if he can step up now.
He served as a co-alternate and a co-captain for years and, perhaps most importantly, is the brand ambassador for Moe’s (fan leadership!). However, he has never really developed into a leader in the Williams mold. Some players are most comfortable in a situation where they are not looked upon as The Guy, and based on what Faulk said last year about his year as a co-captain, that could certainly be true for him.
Faulk is only signed through the upcoming season and has been the subject of constant trade rumors. If he does not seem to be open to negotiations early in the season, the Canes could easily ship him out for other players at the deadline even if they are in contention. They have defensive depth that makes other teams drool and if there is one thing that Tom Dundon has shown, he does not overvalue assets.
Aho emerged as the Hurricanes’ next superstar and is almost guaranteed to be a future captain for the Canes, but is he ready now? He has just three seasons of NHL experience and just one postseason under his belt. He has shown that he thrives in a larger role; no one expected his transition from the wing to center to go this well, and for him to improve in every facet of the game.
The question is can he also do this in a role off the ice. He has been a fairly quiet guy in interview and around the media, although he’s continually becoming more open and less guarded. Will he be ready to face criticism and answer all the questions night in and night out on top of leading the room? The good news is he is someone who takes in everything and learns from every experience that he can.
He will be a great captain in the future, but the concern is whether or not he can handle it now in a transitional year for the Canes who are looking to string together success for the first time since moving to Raleigh. Ideally, he would have another season of experience as the number two behind Williams, but that might not be able to happen and he may be thrust into the captain role before he is fully ready and comfortable with it.
The other players signed for more than three years are Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce, but none of them have consistently worn a letter. It is hard to think they could go from no role directly to captain.
Playoff experience is a premium for captains, and without many playoff savvy vets the Canes don’t have many foolproof options. Without Williams, the Canes may be forced to name a new captain earlier than they would like. However, you sometimes don’t know the full capability of a person until they are thrown into sink or swim situation.
Without confident leadership the Canes are at risk of taking a step back next season. Regardless of this, the core that has been assembled along with the natural leadership of Rod Brind’Amour ensures this team will be fun to watch for seasons to come. Let’s hope that Williams signs on for one more season to help with the mentoring of the next generation of the Carolina Hurricanes.