Carolina Hurricanes

Canes’ captain Justin Williams to ‘step away’ from NHL

Justin Williams isn’t saying he’s retiring from the NHL but the Carolina Hurricanes captain says he’s “stepping away” from the NHL.

The Hurricanes announced Monday that Williams would not be with the team at the start of the 2019-2020 season.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt unsure of my aspirations with regards to hockey,” Williams said in a statement. “For as long as I can remember, my whole off-season until this point has been hockey and doing what was necessary to prepare for the upcoming season. Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game.

“It’s important to me that the focus of attention is on the current, very talented group the Carolina Hurricanes have assembled, as they prepare to build on the momentum and growth we established last season.”

More than three months after the Hurricanes bowed out of the Stanley Cup playoffs, after much reflection, Williams, 37, made his decision. Or signaled his indecision. He’s stepping away but will he ever step back in?

“We appreciate Justin’s honesty and openness throughout this process, and respect his decision,” Hurricanes president and general manager Don Waddell said in a statement. “He’s been an important part of our team, but we did prepare our roster with the understanding that he might step away. We are confident in the group we’ve assembled.”

Williams’ contributions as the captain last season, as the Canes returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, were immeasurable.

“Just the person he is, just the way he carries himself,” defenseman Jaccob Slavin said in an N&O interview last week. “He’s been in this league for a really long time and he knows what needs to be done, when it needs to be done and sometimes how it needs to be done. He carries himself in that way and I think it’s contagious. Obviously with his personality, guys want to follow that.”

Williams was a finalist for the 2019 Mark Messier Leadership Award, given to the player who sets a positive example on the ice, motivates his teammates and also contributes to the community and charitable causes.

“He did all those things on that list,” Canes center Jordan Staal said last week. “For the most part, for me, what I saw was him grouping together a young team and helping us believe we can win every night and realize how good we could be and help us achieve that. And playing well himself.”

Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour played golf with Williams last week and said he believed he knew where Williams’ “heart is.” He said Williams would make a “good decision” and that “it’s going to be the right one, whatever it is.”

As the weeks passed after the season, Waddell continued to say the team would have patience with Williams, giving the veteran winger the proper amount time to heal up after a long season and reach a decision.

“It’s more about his commitment,” Waddell said earlier in August. “Justin’s not going to do something if he’s not 100 percent (committed.) If Justin comes back it’s a bonus.”

Asked about any potential salary-cap concerns should Williams return, Waddell said that would not be a problem.

“He’s a player age 35 and older, so we can give him bonuses and they can be whatever to get him to some type of guarantee,” Waddell said a few weeks ago. “And if we end up over the cap this year, those bonuses get charged to next year.”

In August 2017, Nashville Predators captain Mike Fisher officially retired from the NHL after the Preds had reached the Stanley Cup final. But Fisher, then 37, returned to the Predators in February 2018, completed the 2017-18 season and competed in the playoffs on a one-year, $1 million contract.

Williams, who will be 38 in October, was a vital part of the Canes’ Stanley Cup run in in 2006, scoring in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Edmonton Oilers. He later won two more with the Los Angeles Kings -- he was named the Conn Smythe winner as playoffs MVP in 2014 -- before signing as a free agent in 2015 with the Washington Capitals.

In July 2017, Williams signed a two-year, $9 million free-agent contract with the Canes, coming back to Raleigh. Brind’Amour, a former teammate who had helped convince Williams to return to Carolina, became head coach before last season and quickly turned to Williams to be the captain.

Carolina Hurricanes captain Justin Williams (14) congratulates Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask (40) after the Hurricanes fell 4-0, and Boston clinched the the Eastern Conference Championship on Thursday, May 16, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett

Since season’s end, the Canes have traded for forward Erik Haula and goalies James Reimer and Anton Forsberg while signing free-agent forward Ryan Dzingel. it was if the team was preparing for any Williams eventuality.

Williams arguably was the Canes’ most valuable player as they ended nine years of frustration with their first playoff appearance since 2009.

He wore the “C” as captain for the first time in his career. He said and did the right things. He made sure the Canes not only won but had some fun doing it, introducing the Storm Surge post-game celebrations to home-ice wins at PNC Arena, drawing a lot more attention to the team and its success, its story.

Willams also was productive, playing every game, finishing with 23 goals and 30 assists in the regular season -- his 53-point total his highest since 2011-12 with the Los Angeles Kings.

The Canes shocked the Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs, Williams assisting on Brock McGinn’s winning goal in the second overtime of Game 7. The Canes then swept the New York Islanders in the second round.

The Boston Bruins would sweep the Canes in the Eastern Conference finals, but that ending didn’t tarnish what the Canes had accomplished this past season.

Williams, after the playoffs, said his return -- or retirement -- would be a family decision. He attended the NHL awards ceremony in Las Vegas and in July conducted his annual youth hockey camp in his hometown of Cobourg, Ontario.

Waddell recently said he and team owner Tom Dundon had talked to Williams. Brind’Amour had said he would lobby his friend and former teammate, if need be.

In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.