With the Capitals’ 2015-16 season now in the rearview mirror, we continue with our numerical player-by-player roster analysis.
No. 14 Justin Williams
Age: 34 (turns 35 on Oct. 4)
Penalty minutes: 36
Time on ice: 16:39
Playoff stats: 12 games, 3 goals, 4 assists, minus-3, 14 PIM, 15:28
Contract status: One year remaining on two-year, $6.5 million contract ($3.25 million cap hit)
A little less than a year ago Justin Williams signed a two-year contract with the Capitals for two reasons – to be closer to his wife’s family outside of Philadelphia and to win a fourth Stanley Cup ring.
Following the Caps’ second-round playoff elimination by the Penguins, Williams was asked to evaluate his first season in Washington.
“Listen, it was a failure,” Williams said. “I’m not going to beat around the bush. I came here to try to help this team win and I didn’t do it. People will be upset about that, calling it a failure, but there’s only one team that gets to finish the season with a win and we weren’t it this year, so I consider it a failure from that aspect, but a positive that I know this team can do it.”
From the start, Williams brought the Capitals everything they’d hoped. His 22 goals ranked third on the team behind Alex Ovechkin (50) and T.J. Oshie (26). His 30 assists ranked fourth behind Evgeny Kuznetsov (57) Nicklas Backstrom (50) and John Carlson (31).
He worked efficiently along the boards and in front of the net. He teamed up with Jason Chimera to expertly kill penalties. And when the Caps started running away from the rest of the Eastern Conference he emphasized the need to stay focused on the ultimate goal.
In fact, Williams was the only player during the team’s breakup day who didn’t buy the assertion that the Caps had peaked too soon.
“There’s no such thing,” he said with an air of defiance. “No. No way. You always want to be your best.”
Oddly enough, Williams, who earned a reputation as Mr. Game 7 because of his seven goals, seven assists and 7-0 record in such occurrences, never had the chance to play in one during his first post-season with the Caps. In fact, Williams went his first eight playoff games without a goal on 17 shots and took eight minutes in penalties in a Game 5 loss to Philadelphia.
Many of his scoring opportunities either missed the net or landed softly in the belly of goaltenders Steve Mason, Michal Neuvirth and Matt Murray, leading to speculation he might be playing through an injury.
“No, I was fine,” Williams said. “Everyone’s got something. I was fine.”
Williams played his best hockey in the final four games of the Pittsburgh series, recording three goals and two assists, including a goal and an assist in the Caps’ season-ending 4-3 overtime loss to the Pens.
“The only thing I can process is that it sucks,” Williams said. “Obviously, it stinks losing, but knowing that someone else, another team got the better of you is very, very frustrating. The handshake line, looking at people moving on, that will drive me for next year.
“The margin of error is tiny, it’s small, and when it’s that small it’s about scoring big goals and owning the big moments. They owned more of them than we did and, in turn, won a couple overtime games that could have changed the series. It is what it is. There’s moments in playoff series where you need to rise up and we didn’t get it done.”
That said, Williams says he is “absolutely” happy with his decision to sign with Washington. He rejected offers from a handful of other teams, including the Montreal Canadiens, because he thought the Caps had an excellent chance to win it all. That opinion hasn’t changed.
“There’s nothing like coming to a new team that wants you and fitting in and finding your space and your role and I feel I did that and I’ve enjoyed meeting and spending a lot of time with my new teammates,” he said.
“I know this team has a lot of heart and I know this team never quits and I know this team has a great will win. That’s what I assumed coming here and that’s the impression I have now.”
Never known for being one of the NHL’s fastest skaters, Williams relies more on his positioning, tenacity and direct routes to the puck to create offense. He acknowledged the Caps had trouble with the Penguins’ speed in their six-game series.
“We showed throughout the year that we can adapt to any style, but, more importantly, you want the (opponent) to have to adapt to you and you want to play your game,” he said. “Pittsburgh, they played well. They swarmed us. They didn’t give us much space. They flipped pucks to a lot of speed. They deserved to win, I guess.”
Since their playoff exit, the Capitals have emphasized a need for more speed on their third and fourth lines. If Marcus Johansson is moved from third-line center to second-line left wing next season, Williams could return next season as the Caps’ second-line right wing, especially if the team wants Tom Wilson to move up to a third line with a speedier and more creative center acquired through a trade or free agency.
“Listen, that’s not a job for me to say what we need,” Williams said. “What we need is a winner. I’m certainly not going to say that we can’t do it because we can and sometimes you want people against you because then you have something united to work for and we’re going to prove you wrong and tell all the naysayers right now that are saying that we can’t get it done, bring it on.
“We’re one of the best teams in the league, just not the best this year. As I said, the margin of error is tiny. We’re close, but not there.”
With the possibility of Jason Chimera moving on as a free agent this summer, Williams could become the Caps’ senior statesman next season in what could be his last chance to win a Stanley Cup in Washington. He wants the Capitals to understand that having the pieces in place is just the first step toward winning a championship.
“You’re always learning something,” he said. “You can’t hope to win. You have to make yourself win. You’ve got to will yourself to win.”