After what was by any measure an exceptionally long summer of speculation, Justin Williams has finally announced his desire to take a break from hockey. The intangible leadership value that Williams brought to the team last year is immeasurable and irreplaceable. But he also played the role of a top six winger and a 20-plus goal scorer who was relied on heavily in critical situations throughout the season and playoffs. Let’s take a look at the measurable impacts that he had last season, and how the team can fill them as they face a future without Justin Williams.
Williams played over 17 minutes per night last season — at the age of 37. That’s incredible in itself. The fact that he was able to score 23 goals and tally 30 assists is a testament to just how good of a player he is. (Bonus points to anyone who can name a player that took a break/retired from professional hockey after a 20+ goal season in the NHL.)
On top of his scoring acumen, Williams is an exceptional possession forward. He posted the fifth-best Corsi For Percentage on the team at 57.89%, and it’s not hard to imagine why. He’s very slippery on the boards and creates space for his linemates in a unique way. He had the second highest Scoring Chances For Percentage on the team behind Jordan Staal, meaning that his line was producing scoring chances at a much higher rate than they were conceding them.
Williams’ most valuable offensive asset is his ability to put the puck in the back of the net at will. He was relied on last season to score at both even strength and on the power play, and his departure will leave a big hole in the top nine. That hole could easily be filled by the best pure goal scorer on the Hurricanes — Andrei Svechnikov.
Svechnikov is the most natural successor and will likely be thrown into those offensive situations in Williams’ absence. Increased responsibility in the top six could be exactly what Svechnikov needs to really catch fire this season.
Offensive newcomers will also be relied on to fill the gaps left by Williams. Ryan Dzingel and Erik Haula (and even Martin Necas to a degree) will see increased ice time without the captain around. In retrospect, the Dzingel signing makes even more sense. The forward corps is a bit less of a logjam now, and Dzingel’s role on offense is a lot more clear than it was a month ago.
Justin Williams’ leadership last season is irreplaceable, and his stepping away from the team will leave a huge hole in the locker room. It will also leave a hole in the top six — 23 goals and 17 minutes per night is a lot to lose. The good news is that the front office did a great job this offseason in preparing for what ended up being the inevitable.