Luke DeCock

After summer of deliberation, Hurricanes pressing Justin Williams for an answer

It hasn’t yet reached the point where the Carolina Hurricanes need an answer from Justin Williams. There’s no absolute deadline.

But with less than four weeks to go before training camp opens, they would certainly like to know soon whether their captain is going to be there on Sept. 12 or not.

“We’re getting close to that,” Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said in a phone interview. “I don’t want to set a date. I’m just going to have to talk to him and say we’re close. We’re always trying to improve. We don’t have a lot of spots either way. It’s not like it’s critical.”

Williams on Wednesday said via text message that he was visiting family in northern Ontario and had “nothing to report.”

“What I do know is he’s talked to a lot of people,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said in a phone interview. “We’ve talked about it. He’s talked to a lot of other people who have recently stopped playing to get their thoughts. He’s definitely taking the time, because he wants to make the right decision. But we’re getting into crunch time here.”

The Hurricanes have given the 37-year-old as much latitude as possible to make up his mind, but as it gets deeper into the summer, there does come a point where the Hurricanes need to figure out not only what their roster is going to look like but their dressing room, with or without Williams -- who after scoring 23 goals last season, still should have plenty to offer.

Carolina’s Justin Williams sits in the locker room with his kids Jaxon and Jade after the Boston Bruins eliminated the Carolina Hurricanes in game four of the Eastern Conference finals at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Thursday, May 16, 2019. Ethan Hyman

The salary cap is the least of it. While the Hurricanes are up against the cap thanks in large part to the $6.25 million Patrick Marleau buyout, Williams would still be easy to fit. As an over-35 player, the Hurricanes can offer him a contract full of easily achievable incentives that would count against the cap next season, when they’re out from under the Marleau buyout.

They would have some roster gardening to do, with 14 forwards for 12 spots if Williams comes back, and the sooner they know whether Williams is returning, the sooner they can explore trade options if he comes back. Again, there’s no real hurry there: The August trade market is notoriously slow, but if there is a deal to be made, you’d like to be able to make it.

Then there’s the matter of leadership. Williams thrived in the captain’s role last season, in lockstep with Rod Brind’Amour, finally given that responsibility a year late, and would slot seamlessly back into that position even if in a slightly reduced role on the ice.

If Williams isn’t coming back, the Hurricanes have big decisions to make. Does Jordan Staal deserve a second shot at the captaincy he shared with Justin Faulk in 2017-18, or is he a better fit in a secondary role? (Both Staal and Faulk seemed to thrive relieved of that responsibility last season.) Is Sebastian Aho ready for a bigger role? Is Jordan Martinook more useful as a keep-things-loose-leader-without-a-letter type than he is with one?

There’s only one easy answer to the leadership question, and it’s Williams.

But the Hurricanes need an answer from him on the bigger question first.

“I think he’s getting pretty close to making a decision, I know that,” Brind’Amour said. “I would expect to hear something for sure, if not this week, it’s coming up quick. Obviously, we have to know.”

This is obviously an agonizing decision for Williams, or it would have been settled long ago. He certainly hasn’t rushed into it, using the luxury of months to give this deep consideration, but he’s running out of time. It marches on regardless, the season just around the corner.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.