LOS ANGELES — Three games into the 2010-11 National Hockey League regular season and going back to the start of their 2010 training camp, perhaps the biggest concern for the Los Angeles Kings has been who is going to score goals besides the usual suspects, including Anze Kopitar, Ryan Smyth and Dustin Brown.
Perhaps the biggest question mark in that regard has been right wing Justin Williams, who was a solid contributor offensively last season, until he suffered a broken right leg at Phoenix on December 26, 2009.
Williams, who turned thirty years old on October 4, missed 28 games because of the injury, and was nowhere near the same player he was prior to suffering the injury upon his return.
At no time was that more clear than when he was scratched from the lineup after the Kings lost Game 1 of their Western Conference Quarter Final series at Vancouver on April 15, 2010.
Williams sat out three games of that series, returning in Game 5, a 6-4 Canucks win, giving Vancouver a 3-2 series lead.
Add to that his injury-filled 2008-09 season when he played in just 44 games for the Carolina Hurricanes and the Kings, Williams’ last two NHL seasons were memorable for the wrong reasons.
“I’ve had a couple of tough years that I just want to forget about and put behind me,” he said.
But Williams certainly isn’t forgetting. In fact, his last two seasons appear to be providing inspiration and motivation, and that has shown since training camp began—Williams has been, arguably, the Kings’ best forward since the pre-season began and that has extended through the first three games of the regular season.
Head coach Terry Murray has taken notice as well.
“This was his best game here tonight, going back, before his injury,” Murray said following the Kings’ 3-1 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers at Staples Center in Los Angeles on October 12. “In that first 22 games of last year to this game here tonight—that’s what he was like in those first 22 games.”
“He was on the puck and you could just see it in the third period—he hunted down [Atlanta defenseman Zach] Bogosian when the puck was dumped in there—that’s the energy, that’s the player we need to see consistently,” Murray added. “He gets pucks, he’s moving his feet, he sees the ice, he’s getting open away from the puck when his line mates have it, generating good opportunities. That’s Willie’s game and that’s what we want from him.”
Jarret Stoll is centering the Kings’ second line, with Williams on his right side.
“He works really hard,” Stoll said of Williams. “He’s on the puck all the time, he’s good at creating turnovers, good on the forecheck and just hunting down the puck. He can play down low, he can shoot the puck—he can really fire that thing. Once he gets the puck, he moves his feet, and he likes to make plays. That’s one area of the game that I want to get better at, and he can help me with that, for sure.”
“He’s a great professional and he’s got a lot of skill, too,” added Stoll. “He finds ways to get pucks to the net and ways to score goals. He’s a little grittier than people think, too. He can really get in there and cause some havoc. He’s a good player and he’s done a lot of good things in this league.”
Williams’ return to his pre-broken-leg form came from the bitter taste left from being scratched during the playoffs. Indeed, it was an experience that stuck with him throughout the summer.
“Being a healthy scratch for the first time since your rookie year is, for a veteran, pretty humbling,” said the 6-1, 188-pound native of Cobourg, Ontario. “It leaves a lump in your throat for the whole summer.”
“That was also a driving point for me, to not be remembered like that,” added Williams. “I want to come back strong for my teammates and myself.”
So far, so good, thanks to a intense summer training program and hard work in training camp.
“Training camp was a very important piece [of the puzzle] for me this year, as well as training hard this [past] summer,” Williams noted. “But getting back on the ice, getting the feel for the puck, getting confidence and that inner swagger that I can be an extremely effective player out there on the ice is what’s driving me right now.”
“I’m going to play the same every night, come to work with my work boots on every night,” Williams added. “I know that when I put my work boots on, that’s when my skill takes over. When I’m not working that hard, it’s a lot tougher to play out there. Instincts take over when you work hard.”
Three games into the new season, that swagger is already noticeable.
“He’s got that attitude right now,” said Murray. “As a pro athlete, you have to have a bit of that strut, that inner arrogance that’s going to push you to the next level. That’s something he always had. But I think he lost it. We, as an organization, think he lost it for awhile last year.”
“After his injury, he lost a lot of power, too,” added Murray. “He’s worked hard, physically, but, most importantly, he’s brought his mental game back.”
The biggest challenge for Williams—perhaps it is an obstacle as well—is staying healthy, as he has suffered a plethora of injuries throughout his NHL career—he has played a full season just twice in his career (2005-06 and 2006-07 with Carolina).
But that is not something a player or a team can dwell on.
“Obviously, [my health] at the top of the list,” said Williams. “Whatever happens, happens. But I know that if I stay healthy, I’m going to be a real big contributor on this team, be very effective and help this team to be where we ultimately want to be.”
“Health is one of those things—sometimes it’s one unlucky break here or there,” Stoll explained. “[Williams is] going to have a great year, a healthy year. He’s going to play all 82 games. I know that’s what he’s thinking. That’s the way I’m thinking about him.”
Three games into the regular season, Williams is ranked second on the team in overall scoring with a goal and two assists, his goal coming on the power play off a rebound in front of Vancouver Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo, helping lead the Kings to a 2-1 shootout win at Vancouver on October 9.
Williams also assisted on a goal by Smyth to get the Kings going offensively against Atlanta on October 12, by getting to the front of the Thrashers’ net, wreaking some of that havoc Stoll mentioned.
Until that point in the game, the Kings were struggling offensively because they were not getting pucks or bodies to the front of the net.
“I was talking on the bench with [Smyth] and I was saying, ‘jeez…you know, this is the third game in a row here and we haven’t scored first, we’re still at zeroes after the first two periods of every game,” Williams explained. “‘When are we going to get this five-on-five going?’”
“It probably wasn’t going to be a pretty goal, and it wasn’t,” Williams elaborated. “There was a lot of bumping and maybe that’s how it’s going to be for a little while, and when you do those things, that’s when it opens up everything else. When you get in front of the net, that’s when they sink down a bit and that’s when you might get a shot in the slot.”
To this point in the new season, Williams has been found in front of the opponent’s net rather frequently and more often than last season.
“[The coaching staff is] pushing net presence, net presence,” said Williams. “It’s tough to score goals in this league. Defensemen are coming back, the forwards are coming back, there’s usually five [defenders] in front of the net. So it’s tough to get shots through, it’s tough to score. Getting into the dirty areas, getting ugly goals—we knew we had an ugly start. But we got one ugly one and we won.”
Driving hard to the front of the net, winning loose puck battles along the boards and in the corners—all with a seemingly renewed effort and greater motivation—all bodes well for the Kings, who desperately need offensive production from Williams if they expect to qualify for the playoffs and, at least, get into the second round.
“He’s going to show, that when I took him out of the playoffs last year that that was the wrong decision,” Murray stressed. “He’s got something to prove to all of us and to himself. He’s on track to be right.”
But there is an even deeper motivation as well.
“I don’t want to say it, but my hockey career, and the way I want it to go, is on the line this year,” Williams emphasized.
In other news…
On October 12, both Rich Hammond of the LA Kings Insider and Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times reported that a charge of felony fourth-degree sexual abuse against former Kings defenseman and assistant coach Mark Hardy has been dismissed in Washington, D.C. “…“for want of prosecution.”
Jonathan Moncrief, who covers the Los Angeles Kings for The Examiner, contributed to this story.
Raw Audio Interview with Justin Williams (7:50; edited to remove extraneous material and dead air):
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