“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
-- Oscar Wilde
Justin Williams finished the 2014-2015 season with 179 goals scored and 449 points since the 2004-2005 lockout. Those are not bad numbers, but neither are they extraordinary. Sixty active players had more goals scored over that period, and 54 had more points. But no player had more of what they would want most. Williams’ name was engraved on the Stanley Cup three times during that period, once with the Carolina Hurricanes (2006) and twice with the Los Angeles Kings (2012, 2014).
Truth be told, Williams has been a good, not a great player over the course of his 14-year career. Over 918 regular season games, his scoring line per 82 games is 20-32-52, plus-8. However, after posting two 55-plus point seasons in 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, his pace slipped a bit over his last three seasons (a 19-27-46 scoring pace).
What he was, though, was a solid possession player. His 57.3 Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 was tenth among 362 forwards playing at least 500 5-on-5 minutes last season (numbers from war-on-ice.com). It was hardly out of the ordinary for Williams. Over his last 12 seasons he has never been below 50 percent in his Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5, and ten times he was over 55 percent. In 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 he topped 60 percent (numbers from war-on-ice.com).
Looking at his scoring last season, he was more productive as a goal scorer against stiffer competition. In 45 games against teams that would reach the postseason he had 12 goals, a 22-goal pace per 82 games. In 36 games against teams failing to reach the postseason he had six goals, a 14-goal pace.
Williams is one of two acquisitions this summer meant to shore up the right side of the forwards lines (T.J. Oshie being the other), taking over roster spots assumed last season by Troy Brouwer (traded to St. Louis for Oshie) and Joel Ward (signed by San Jose as a free agent). One way in which Williams differed substantially from both Brouwer and Ward last season was in his ice time profile. In 2014-2015, both Brouwer and Ward skated significant minutes on special teams. Brouwer averaged more than two minutes per game on both the power play and penalty kill; Ward averaged more than 1:30 a game on both sides of special teams. On the other hand, while Williams was a significant cog on the power play for Los Angeles (1:37 per game), he got almost no penalty killing time (0:08 per game).
Justin Williams is a commodity rarely seen by Caps fans, a player who raises his game in the postseason. In 98 playoff games since the 2004-2005 lockout, he is 29-43-72, plus-33, that plus-minus number being second best over that span (Henrik Zetterberg: plus-42). Five of those goals were game-winners He also has a thing about the number “7” in the post season, specifically with respect to Game 7’s. His teams are 7-0 in Game 7’s, and he is 7-7-14, plus-9 in those games, the point total being an NHL record for Game 7’s. What is more, Williams either scored the game-winning goal (2) or assisted on the game-winner (3) five times in those seven Game 7 wins. He is not just a lucky warrior, though. In 20 playoff series Williams has played in over his career, his teams are 15-5.
Last season, Williams finished 18-23-41 for the Kings but did so logging his lowest average ice time per game (15:49) since the 2001-2002 season (14:27), his second in the league. And, he did not finish particularly well. He did not record a goal in his last 12 games and had only three in his last 30 contests. His goals per game has been slowly slipping over the last four seasons. After averaging 0.30 goals per game in 2010-2011, his numbers since have been: 0.27, 0.23, 0.23, and 0.22.
The Big Question… Is Justin Williams still a scoring line forward?
You might think that the obvious answer to this question is “yes.” Well, not so fast. Justin Williams will be 34 years old on Opening Night, and his regular season goal production over the past three seasons (48 in 211 games) did not equal that of either of the two right wings departing the Caps this past summer – Troy Brouwer (65 in 211 games) and Joel Ward (51 in 203 games). He is likely to get his chances early, either manning the right side on the top line or on the right side of the second line. Given the skill that the Capitals can deploy on those lines – Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on the top line, Evgeny Kuznetsov and perhaps either Marcus Johansson or Andre Burakovsky on the second line – Williams’ can be a steadying influence, especially if he can continue his career-long trend as a superior possession player.
But all the consideration of lines and combinations and roles is regular season prelude. Whether Williams is a scoring line forward in the regular season is less a concern than it is a simplistic formulation. Folks will be zoned in on his performance in the postseason, wherever he is deployed. Consider that the player he is nominally replacing – Troy Brouwer – was 3-6-9, minus-5, in his 35 postseason games with the Caps, one goal in his last 30 playoff games for the club. In his last 35 post season games with the Kings, Williams has 13 goals (22 in 73 playoff games overall with the Kings). Where Williams plays is less important than when –on the calendar – he produces.
In the end…
Justin Williams comes to the Capitals as an uncommon player in one important respect. He has appeared in more postseason games over his three stops in the NHL (Philadelphia, Carolina, Los Angeles) – 115 – than any Capital has with the club in team history (Dale Hunter and Kelly Miller: 100). In the current era of playoff appearances, Alex Ovechkin leads the team in games played with 72. And, Williams has those three Stanley Cups on his resume. The only other Caps player with his name on that hardware is Brook Orpik (2009 with Pittsburgh).
It would be tempting, given his playoff pedigree, to think of Justin Williams as a savior of sorts. He isn’t. He is no longer a 30-goal scorer, as he was with Carolina for two seasons almost a decade ago. But he has displayed a persistent sense of timing, of being a consequential player in the sport’s biggest games. It is a mystery how it is any one player can be good, but not extraordinary, over the long march of a regular season, and then stand out – consistently – in the game’s ultimate test, the Game 7 of a Stanley Cup playoff series. It is no less a mystery how it is a team can play well enough to reach a Game 7 in the postseason, as the Caps have done 14 times in club history, and fail to cross the threshold as often as they do (4-10 in those games, 3-6 in the current playoff era). Perhaps this season we will see which of these conflicting mysteries will live on.
Projection: 81 games, 19-27-46, plus-12
Photo: Harry How/Getty Images North America