Sunday, September 25, 2016

Washington Capitals 2016-2017 Previews -- Forwards: Justin Williams

Justin Williams

“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”
-- Leonardo da Vinci

Justin Williams was a first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2000, having played two seasons for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League in Canadian juniors, a team that won 96 of 136 regular season games over those two years.  Williams was 41-54-95, plus-58, in 115 games for those clubs and added another 15 goals and 33 points in 30 post season games.

Six years later, after having been traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2004, Williams won his first Stanley Cup, tying for third on the team in total scoring (18 points in 25 games), but perhaps as important, scoring the insurance empty net goal in Game 7 of the Hurricanes 3-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers to win the Cup.  It was the first time Williams played in a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup final and the second time he played in a playoff Game 7, the Hurricanes beating the Buffalo Sabres in the previous series as Williams recorded a goal and two assists.

It would be another six seasons before Williams would play for a team that won a playoff series.  After he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 2009, he and the Kings failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs in two tries.  However, in 2012 he and the Kings won the Cup, although not once in four series were the Kings extended to seven games in winning. 

The following season, Williams added to his growing “Game 7” resume, scoring both goals in the series clinching 2-1 win over the San Jose Sharks in the conference semi-finals.  Los Angeles lost to the Chicago Blackhawks, the eventual Cup champion, in the conference final, but it was a stepping stone to the 2014 postseason for both player and club.  The Kings played three seven-game series on their way to the finals, Williams going 2-3-5, plus-3 in the three Games 7, propelling the Kings to the final where they beat the New York Rangers in five games.

It was that ability to step up in the postseason that the Caps were counting on when they signed him away from the Kings as a free agent in July 2015.  He was certainly a solid contributor in the regular season, his 22 goals being the most since he posted that total with the Kings in 2011-2012 and as many as he had in any season since he had 33 for the Hurricanes in 2006-2007.  He finished with 52 points, the fifth time he recorded more than 50 points in a season.

One of the things that commended Williams to the Caps, in addition to his playoff theatrics, was his record as a possession player.  He did not disappoint here, either.  At 5-on-5, his Corsi-for was 53.4 percent, best among all Capitals forwards with at least 250 minutes at 5-on-5 (numbers from Corsica.Hockey).  What is odd about his performance, though, is that the 53.4 percent Corsi-for at fives is his worst finish over the last nine seasons.

Fearless’ Take…

Only once over the course of the 2015-2016 regular season did Williams go as many as four games without a point.  The Caps were 17-2-0 in games in which he recorded a goal and 31-5-4 in games in which he recorded a point.  Washington did not lose a home game in regulation when Williams recorded at least one point (18-0-2).  Williams skated at least 100 5-on-5 minutes with six other Caps forwards in 2015-2016.  Only Evgeny Kuznetsov had a better Corsi-for skating apart from Williams than he had skating with him, and that difference was less than one percentage point (53.0 percent to 52.1 percent; numbers from  He stepped up in the postseason when the Caps needed him to do that.  Williams had points in each of the last four games of the second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins (3-2-5, plus-5).

Cheerless’ Take…

Where was Williams in the first part of the postseason?  In his first eight playoff games last spring he had just two assists and was a minus-6 (he wasn’t a “plus” player in any game).  From Game 4 in the first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers through Game 2 against the Penguins in the second round, he did not record a point.  The five straight games without a point tied his longest career postseason points drought.

Oh, and what was the deal with getting goals overturned?...

The Big Question… Can Justin Williams be “That Guy” in the postseason one more time?

It would seem entirely likely that Justin Williams will have another typically solid regular season.  He has missed only one regular season game over the last five seasons and has averaged better than half a point per game in each of those seasons.  But what about the postseason, the time of year that has set Williams apart from many of his contemporaries?  Williams will turn 35 years of age nine days before the Caps’ 2016-2017 season starts.  Since the 2004-2005 lockout, only 12 forwards 35 or older have appeared in at least 20 postseason games and averaged at least a half a point per game.  It is not a rare occurrence, given how many players appear in at least 20 games in any postseason, but it is not a common one, either. 

Williams has appeared in at least 20 postseason games three times in his career (each time with a team winning the Stanley Cup).  Over those three postseasons he averaged 0.82 points per game.  What is more, he has stepped up late in the postseason.  In 37 conference final and Stanley Cup finals games in those three seasons, Williams was 11-22-33, plus-23.  And of course, there is that Game 7 record.  Seven games, seven wins, 7-6-13, plus-10.  The only issues, it would seem, is if he has another such season in him at age 35.

In the end…

Justin Williams did not get to play in a Game 7 in his first year with the Capitals.  Neither did he get to play in a conference final or Stanley Cup final, where he has excelled over his career.  So, for Year 1 of his stay in Washington, the score is “Capitals Curse:” 1 – Mr. Game 7: 0.  Williams will be engaged in a different sort of subplot in his second year in Washington, his own durability and level of performance against the march of time.  Players keep themselves in top shape longer these days than in past years, so it would not be surprising to find Williams having a regular season along the lines he had last season (82 games, 22-30-52, plus-15). 

And let’s remember that Williams did not win a Stanley Cup in Philadelphia, did not win one in his first (partial) season in Carolina, and did not win one in his first two-plus seasons in Los Angeles.  The flip side of that is that there is no guarantee of a “third time being the charm” in Washington, since Williams is embarking on the second year of a two-year contract with the Caps.  Williams has made the playoffs a regular thing in his career (he is in the top-15 among active players in postseason games played).  And he has tasted from the Stanley Cup often enough to suggest that it is a stage to which he wishes to return.

Projection: 81 games, 19-28-47, plus-13

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America