Carolina Hurricanes: How The Locker Room Will Live Without Justin Williams

RALEIGH, NC - MAY 03: Justin Williams #14 of the Carolina Hurricanes is congratulated by teammates after scoring a goal in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the New York Islanders during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 3, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)
RALEIGH, NC - MAY 03: Justin Williams #14 of the Carolina Hurricanes is congratulated by teammates after scoring a goal in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the New York Islanders during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 3, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images) /

Justin Williams is gone. The definitive leader of this team, and the face of a very young locker room has stepped away from the game. With talent in abundance, the Canes players must be ready to stand on their own two feet now.

If you watch sports for any extended amount of time you learn one thing; adversity is inevitable. The league year is pretty long and teams are way too talented for this not to be true. But this is why leadership is so important. Absence of leadership on your team will only hinder any opportunity for growth, and nearly eliminate the opportunity for experience.

Just two years ago, The Carolina Hurricanes seemed to have enough pieces to be conducive for a success in the season, and eventual playoff acumen, but consistently fell short. Leadership was sorely lacking, and this was evident by all parties. Then head coach Bill Peters decided to go with a dual captaincy. A decision that thankfully was undone by his replacement.

The shift came in the 2018-2019, but this wasn’t an emphasis on leadership by one particular player; this was a an organizational shift of seismic proportions, with franchise altering consequences.

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Set forth by team owner Tom Dundon, echoed by General Manager Don Wadell, implemented by Head coach Rod Brind’Amour, and embraced by new team captain Justin Williams the shift in team identity commenced. A team wrought with youth, talent, game changing ability, and complimentary skillsets; leadership was the missing ingredient for their inevitable success.

Justin Williams was the key to that equation, and the Hurricanes need to look at what his absence means for the team going forward. His decision to take time away from the game was not a surprising development but has major implications for this team. One thing is for sure, the Hurricanes will feel the difference in the locker room.

This conversation isn’t about letters; Brind’Amour didn’t make Williams team captain so that he could be a leader, he earned the captaincy because he already was. But where does this team go from here? Which players will rise up and lead by example; eventually earning the same respect of number 14?

Some will point to a veteran like Jordan Staal. A former co-captain who thrived as an alternate on last year’s team. The question becomes, does he have the sort of temperament and respect to fill the void Williams left behind? Staal proved to be a serviceable leader in his own right, but he was never the driving force of that locker room.

There is no doubt, however, that the veteran center man is a highly respected individual; and his performances during last year’s playoff run should only serve his influence. His focus on the ice keeps Staal as one of the more respected names on this roster.

Often regarded as a pillar of this franchise for most of his tenure, and proving to be a team first player, Staal maintains a similar discipline and work ethic that had made Williams so beloved.

Another player whose role will likely increase is Jordan Martinook. Undervalued by the league but absolutely beloved by Caniacs, Marty could help fill Williams void with ease.

He is beloved by his teammates, and it’s easy to see why. He’s played through injury for them, he’s produced in accordance with his opportunity in every facet, and he has maintained his relentless energy and unmatched grit to always make his presence known.

Martinook may very well benefit the most from Williams absence. Many of this teams young players, seeking someone to lead their ambition, will gravitate to a personality like Martinook. The guy lives for his team, and these players will elevate their game if their held accountable to the kind of worker that he has proven to be.

Jaccob Slavin is another name that comes to mind when discussing what this leadership group could look like. Slavin is one of the league’s premier defenseman, and his talent has become unquestionable. What is more important, however, is how the man operates both on and off the ice.

Slavin is a class act. Respectful, relentless, and prepared, he is the guy who never wavers, but is always willing to work. He is always the last player to leave the ice every night, a symbol of his place among this group.

There is not one guy wearing a Carolina sweater who wouldn’t give their absolutely all at the very highest level knowing that Slavin is consistently doing that very thing. His voice in that room seems sparse, but his words will carry a tremendous weight. His influence should be counted on desperately.

Staal, Martinook, and Slavvin will be key to filling the crater that Williams is leaving in Raleigh. There are other names to add in that mix. Newly aquired Jake Gardiner can definitely add some leadership, as he was a beloved teammate in Toronto and has seen as many up’s and downs as anyone during his NHL tenure.

Talented players like Teuvo Teravainen, Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce, and Nino Niederreiter all boast a ton of experience in the NHL and should be leaned on by this coaching staff. They have proven it in the league, and they have all been instrumental contributors to the Carolina culture change that happened late last season.

Replacing Williams will not be easy. He is a true rarity. A Stanley Cup champion, an effective talent, and a disciplined worker. If it was that easy to replace such a player, there would be a lot fewer bad teams in the NHL.

There is no clear answer to who will fill the massive skates that Williams is leaving in Raleigh, but that doesn’t mean that it will implode the team. Remember, the aspect of leadership that has made the Hurricanes so successful, both last season and this offseason, is still present in the organization. Rod Brind’Amour, one the greatest captains of all time, is still the leader behind the bench.

Maybe Carolina won’t be able to replace Williams, and that’s alright. This is a different organization, one that has shifted the culture for the better. Williams may be gone, and we may feel his absence at times this year, but the impact he has had on this organization will be felt and maintained for many years to come.

One thing is for sure, this group will step up in his absence; that is something that these players know Williams would’ve demanded.

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Question for CC Readers: Who become the voice of the Carolina locker room?