Last week, the earth-shattering news was revealed to the public. An announcement that no one saw coming and left everyone paralyzed in shock.
Justin Williams came out of retirement and signed with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Okay, so maybe that’s not the most accurate way to describe it. It was more along the lines of the worst-kept secret in the history of mankind. Regardless of what it was, Williams signed an incentive-laden deal through the remainder of the 2019-20 season.
For now, the timeline of Williams’ return to the lineup is up in the air. Maybe he makes his debut this weekend. Maybe he doesn’t play until the All-Star break ends. He is back and practicing with the team, though, which has raised a very relevant question - where does he fit?
It’s important to remember a few things:
Williams hasn’t played hockey at an NHL level or anywhere close to it in almost nine months, he is 38 years old, and in his long and storied career, he has never done what he is doing right now.
He’s not going to enter the lineup and play with Sebastian Aho right away. That isn’t fair to him or anyone else. He won’t immediately be the 53-point scorer he was just a season ago, and he won’t be played as such, which means he’ll be worked into the lineup at an appropriate pace.
You likely start with putting him on the fourth forward line, centered by Lucas Wallmark, a center he has played with in the past. Given the excellent offensive stretch that Wallmark is in, that line shouldn’t be anywhere close to a wasteland for offense that misuses Williams in the early stages. To me, it’s a pretty perfect place for him to start - with a dependable two-way center in an easier role. He’ll get his offensive opportunities and get up to speed, presumably in relatively short order given that, once he does get acclimated, the hockey will come naturally for him as it has for roughly two decades in the NHL.
That, of course, would require some shuffling of the forward core. One of the bottom-six forwards, let’s say Brock McGinn, can go in and out of the lineup. Whether it’s McGinn or someone else, a spot has to be made for Williams. It’s a business, though, and them’s the breaks.
As time goes on, Williams’ presence on the team will get more and more important. The Hurricanes have been relatively fortunate on the injury front this season. Outside of Erik Haula’s ongoing lower-body ailment, the Canes have been pretty healthy. That said, injury bugs happen, and it’ll assuredly hit at some point for the Hurricanes. Having a 13th forward who just so happens to be a three-time champion and captain of last season’s team will be very convenient.
Haula’s injury issues should also be mitigated to some extent by Williams’ return. With an extra forward, one who they hope will be capable of being the difference maker that Williams has been, the Hurricanes can afford to rest Haula when he needs it.
So, where does Williams fit in? My answer is, we’ll see. No one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow or a week from now or a month from now. Things change quickly in the NHL, which means depth is a valuable asset.
And let’s remember who we’re talking about here - one way or another, Williams will fit in and it’ll be fine.
The Hurricanes Have 99 Problems, but Goaltending Ain’t One (but the offense is, like, 70 of them)
Petr Mrazek and James Reimer have combined to give the Hurricanes stretches of very solid goaltending through the first half of the season, and they are in another one of those stretches right now.
Over Mrazek’s last five starts, he owns a .932 save percentage and a 2-3-0 record (more on that in a moment). Over Reimer’s last ten starts, he is 7-2-0 with a .929 save percentage and three shutouts. Carolina’s goalie duo has been great as of late, and they’ve been above average for most of the season.
The Hurricanes’ team save percentage sits at .907 through 46 games. The NHL average is .904. Their .907 mark is also a notch better than their .906 team save percentage from 2018-19. So, the Canes are getting sufficient goaltending right now, but they’re still just treading water.
One reason for that is the fluctuation in their offense. Over their last six games, they are averaging just 2.3 goals per game, almost a full goal under their 3.22 season average. They were shut out by the Washington Capitals on Monday and didn’t even create much offense outside of a few brief pushes. Their goaltending held both the Coyotes and the Kings off the board in their back-to-back wins over the weekend, and their offense was almost nonexistent against the Lightning early in the homestand.
Through the end of December, strong offensive output was a given on most occasions. It’s be less than that as of late. That, combined with inconsistent special teams play and a lack of conversions, has put the Hurricanes in a bit of a lull since the start of the new calendar year. Perhaps an infusion of some Justin Williams can be helpful in that regard, but relying on that to happen feels far from reassuring.
Warren Foegele’s Progress
Foegele’s rookie season was a rollercoaster.
He started on a tear, went into an almost unbelievable scoring drought through the regular season, and ended the season with an outburst of production which led to a dynamic and game-breaking series against the Capitals.
He has found some consistency as a second-year player.
In 46 games played this season, Foegele has 10 goals and 22 points. He had 10 goals and 17 points in the entirety of 2018-19, when he played in 77 games. That’s a pretty dramatic uptick in production from a young player whose role continues to grow as he does.
His average ice time is up by 1:13 season-to-season as he is seeing significant 5-on-5 ice time to go along with an important role on the penalty kill where he has three shorthanded goals.
As the Hurricanes look to create sustained success, they have to develop in-house talent and turn them into playable NHLers on the cheap. Foegele is an example of the Canes doing that and getting rewarded for it.