Canes’ nation got some shocking news yesterday when Captain Justin Williams announced he would be stepping away from the NHL. I’m bummed and it’s okay if you are too. The point that I don’t need to belabor is that this decision weighed on Williams mightily, and he made his decision with the best interest of the team in mind.
I’m not surprised that this was the conclusion at which he arrived. To me, the signs were there. I believe it was after the game 7 double-OT victory versus Washington that I first noticed change. There was a video of only the captain walking into the room to sit down at his locker. It was his body language and the manner in which he took his gear off that caught my attention. The fatigue and mental exhaustion in his eyes was unmistakable. Seeing Williams unguarded on camera like that had a feeling of newness for me. Postgame tired was normal, but this tired was not that. The second sign I noted was his snowballing penalties in the series against the Bruins. The timing and nature of those infractions was different. Not to blow minor penalties out of proportion, but Williams and a lack of mental discipline were two ideas that rarely, if ever, went together. Williams took hockey penalties from time to time, but not mental penalties, if you catch my drift.
Those are just some of the side notes I had taken in case some were seeking more explanation than Williams’ “I’ve decided to step away from the game,” quote. To me, there’s some nuance that goes along with this. We can read between the lines of his choice to step away. My thought is that there is assurance for the future if we step back and think about who it is that just made the decision, his thoughtfulness, and his track record. I think William’s choice says much more than “I’m done.”
We all know that Williams puts 110% of his energy into his play and leadership. I’d wager that he put 130% into this specific Canes team and that specific season. Not only did he have his best statistical season since 2011-2012, but also he rebuilt the bridge between the team and community. Indirectly and unofficially, Williams owns a part of what this team has become because he helped engineer its rebirth.
Think of all the character that has been added or re-signed to the room in Captain Williams’ image. Character became priority number one when the page turned over last summer. Ryan Dzingel, Erik Haula, Jordan Martinook, Nino Niederreiter, and Brock McGinn are all guys that might not be part of the “core,” but in one way or another they overlap with Williams’ work ethic, leadership, or skill. They are instrumental to the team’s success, and they’ll all play for second-year Coach Brind’Amour. This was always the image.
I’ve been saying Captain Williams because I don’t expect the Canes to name a new one until Williams officially retires. I still think Aho is set to be the next Canes’ captain, just not yet. It’s so clear that Williams has had an enormous impact on Aho’s attitude and work ethic. They had the lockers next to each other last season, and I think it’s because Aho is being groomed for the role. Aho has that same insatiable desire to win like Williams. Until a decision is made official on Williams’ end, I think a fair speculation would be two alternates in Aho and Staal. My thought in the long run is that Williams “stepping away” indirectly says, “He’s ready” of Sebastian, even if Williams himself is not ready to fully let go.
That would be a huge compliment of the future of the Canes’ franchise from one of the sport’s most consistent winners if you ask me. I don’t claim to know him, but Williams has never struck me as the type to leave something unfinished. If he’s stepping away, then to some degree, he must feel content with where the team is, where it’s going, and what he’s been able to do. The right people are in place, and he feels comfortable taking even more time to decide for himself because of it. That speaks volumes.
I can understand how this might feel like the final chapter for Williams. For him personally, it’s entirely plausible that serving as the guiding hand and ushering in a new era of Canes hockey was a much sweeter note to go out on than a 4th Stanley Cup. I’d wager more was asked of him this season than in any championship season prior. He served as captain for just this one season, but if he did it near flawlessly on his first try, would he really need to come back and do it again? We know Williams would say he could always do more and improve. But from a fan’s perspective, I honestly don’t know what else he can do for us as captain. Maybe he’ll return mid-season for a final victory lap as to add to his career point totals. Other than that, he’s done everything asked of him in this role and then some.
It’s a lot to digest, but I think the Canes are going to be just fine heading into this season. Physically, Williams won’t be in the room. Though, I get the sense that the impression he left in the locker room will have lasting effects. He’ll be there in spirit always giving the guys that something extra.
If this is indeed the end, thanks for everything #14. Thanks for being our rock in this time of organizational change. Thanks for helping rekindle that fire in the Canes’ community. Thanks for mentoring our rookies. Thanks for helping guide your old friend and our new head coach. Thanks for being the caniacs’ leader. We owe you big time. Hopefully, we’ll see you on the ice again very soon.