LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — Back in early March 2009, when the Los Angeles Kings acquired veteran right wing Justin Williams, many people, including yours truly, expressed concern about the deal, given Williams’ lengthy injury history.
Indeed, before joining the Kings, Williams had played a full, 82-game season just twice. From 2000-01 to 2008-09, he suffered injuries that include broken fingers and hands, a broken wrist, shoulder strains and sprains, a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a torn Achilles tendon.
When he was acquired by the Kings, Williams was on injured reserve after suffering another broken hand.
At the time of the trade, I panned the deal, stating that Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi was taking a huge, unnecessary risk.
To be sure, this trade is a huge risk, a tremendous gamble for Lombardi and the Kings, perhaps Lombardi’s biggest wager since joining the Kings. After all, outside of his best two seasons, Williams has not come anywhere close to being the thirty-goal scorer that Lombardi and [former head coach Terry] Murray say he is.
To be fair, Williams could suddenly become the Man of Steel, never miss another game and become the thirty-plus goal scorer the Kings so desperately need. But given Williams’ track record, it is far more likely that this deal will just be one more in a long, pathetic history of horrific trades in the Kings’ franchise history and could be a huge setback for Lombardi’s rebuilding plan.
One way or the other, we will find out soon enough.
The next season, Williams broke his right leg in Phoenix on December 26, 2009. He played in 49 regular season games that year, but upon his return from the injury, he was nowhere near effective, and wound up being a healthy scratch in three of the Kings’ six playoff games against the Vancouver Canucks that season (Canucks won the series, 4-2).
“Being a healthy scratch for the first time since your rookie year is, for a veteran, pretty humbling,” Williams said at the opening of the Kings’ 2010-11 training camp in September 2010. “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.”
At that point, it looked like Lombardi’s high stakes bet was going to be a bust, as so many expected it would.
But after that, things started to look up for Williams, who missed just nine regular season games in the 2010-11 season.
He has not missed a game, regular season or playoffs, since.
“[Injuries] only become a negative if you allow it to affect you,” Williams said on March 30, 2014. “Whether you deserve it or not, when you have injuries, and you have a few in a row, you’re going to get labeled. It’s tough to shed the label, but all you’ve got to do is go out, be consistent, play hard, and you won’t have to think about it anymore.”
“It’s a tough league, and guys get hurt,” Williams added. “I’ve put that behind me. I don’t even want to think about any of that stuff anymore. The more you think about it, I say, there’s a better chance you’ll get hurt. You go out there, use your instincts, and play your hardest. Hopefully, it won’t happen.”
Over the last three seasons, Williams has not only put the injury bug behind him, but as he has shown during the Kings’ 2012 run to their first Stanley Cup Championship, and in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he has made Lombardi’s bet pay off many times over.
“He takes really good care of himself, off the ice, and he’s a gamer,” said forward and captain Dustin Brown. “When you have a guy like that, who wants to play, he’ll find a way to get back.”
“If you look at his [entire] career, it’s ups and downs, [in terms of] staying healthy,” added Brown. “He’s been healthier here, but there’s no rhyme or reason for that. His injuries [haven’t been] pulled muscles. [They’ve been] stuff you can’t do anything about. But he’s been able to find his groove here in L.A. and get really comfortable.”
Williams has been a key player in the Kings reaching the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, and with his overtime game-winning goal in Game 1 against the New York Rangers on June 4, he is now in the conversation for the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded annually to the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs.
Williams has scored eight goals and has tallied twelve assists for twenty points in 22 playoff games this season, setting career highs in goals, assists and points in a single playoff year.
Until that overtime goal in Game 1 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, Williams was becoming known, primarily, for his heroics in Game 7’s—he is known as “Mr. Game 7.”
“He’s been known, obviously, to play big in big games,” said Brown. “I think it just comes down to his focus, having that even keel, because he’s one of the looser guys on our team before the game. You can see it build up as we approach game time. He gets more and more focused, more serious. Like I said, he’s a big game player.”
“You’ve got to go through those moments and have success in those moments,” defenseman Willie Mitchell said about Williams and his Game 7 prowess. “Once you have that success, you have that belief inside yourself that whenever you get the puck, you can make a difference.”
“He’s been in the playoffs for a long time,” Mitchell added. “He’s won [two Stanley] Cups. He won in Carolina. Even Philly has been in the playoffs, so he’s been there. He knows what it takes. I think he was around some good players earlier in his career, when they had success. When you’re around those people, I think it rubs off on you.”
Williams is more than just a Game 7 performer.
“He’s a really good player for our hockey team,” said head coach Darryl Sutter. “He’s our best right winger every night, consistently.”
“He’s a very competitive player,” added Sutter. “I think there’s a lot of players like that on our team. It’s not like they’re big, physical players. They’re tenacious players. That’s probably a good thing to call Justin. He’s a tenacious player. Strong with the puck, handles the puck, makes good plays.”
Although they both entered the National Hockey League in the 2000-01 season, left wing Marian Gaborik did not know much about Williams when he joined the Kings back in early March.
“I didn’t really play that much against him,” said Gaborik. “I knew he won the Cup in Carolina before, and here. But I didn’t see him play, or play against him a whole lot, even though we started [in the NHL] at the same time, in 2000. [But] you can tell, when you play with the guy, he’s a great player. I underestimated him, that’s for sure.”
“It’s just [how good he is] with the puck,” added Gaborik. “He can turn on a dime, hold onto the puck, control the puck, and make plays, too. He’s not the best skater, but he gets to places, he gets to the dirty areas, he can make plays, and he scores big goals. He’s got that nickname, ‘Mr. Game 7,’ so he’s proven to be a winner, and he’s proven to be a great game changer as well.”
“He can control the half-wall [because] he can get away from players, he can turn on a dime, he holds onto that puck, and he tracks the opposition so that he can make a play. You could see that on [defenseman Drew] Doughty’s goal [in Game 1 against the Rangers]. He turned, got a couple of guys sucked into him, and then he made a nice play to Doughty.”
Doughty indicated that Williams is one of his favorite go-to guys on the team.
“I’ve said this many times,” said Doughty. “Justin is the most underrated player on our team by a mile. He doesn’t get enough credit for what he does. There are two guys on this team that I want to give the puck to, and that’s him and [center Anze Kopitar]. When they have the puck, plays happen.”
“As a defenseman, you love to watch it,” added Doughty. “That gives you opportunities to jump in offensively, too. At the same time, he works very, very hard at both ends of the ice, and shows a lot of leadership.”
Brown indicated that Williams is a clutch player, and not just in Game 7’s.
“In 2012, [he had twelve] points [in the post-season], which is good for the playoffs,” said Brown. “That’s the thing about Justin. It’s not necessarily about his points. He’s scoring big goals at big times, and that’s what he’s known for. But it’s [also] all the other things he does. He finds ways to make impacts on every game.”
“He’s very even keel,” added Brown. “Playoffs sometimes brings out the best in players. There’s a lot of guys who elevate their game at this time of the year, whether it’s on the scoresheet, or just in overall play. Justin, with his track record in Game 7’s, that sort of thing, has that aura about him. But if you look around this room, a lot of guys have elevated their games. That’s why we’re here.”
The leadership role Williams plays is at least as important as what he does on the ice.
“He’s one of the leaders on our team,” said forward Jeff Carter. “He’s a real vocal guy in the room. You can definitely see the passion that comes out come game time. He knows when to turn it on, knows when to turn it off. He’s a real big part of our team.”
“He’s won a couple of Cups…his presence in the room, he leads by example on the ice as well,” Gaborik noted. “He gets the guys going, that’s for sure. He’s pretty vocal. Guys respect him.”
“When something needs to be said, he’ll say it,” said Brown. “That’s the type of player and leader he is. But he’s more about doing it than talking about it.”
Williams has also helped the young players on the team.
“When I was first up here [for a brief stint at the start of the 2010-11 season]…he was awesome to me,” said defenseman Jake Muzzin. “He’s always been a calming body in the room. He’s seen it all, been through it. He gets fired up when we need to get fired up. Nothing really gets him [unnerved]. That’s why, in overtime, when he gets the puck in the slot—no panic. Picks his corner and hits it. That’s who he is. He’s an awesome leader. He’s been awesome for me. I think he’s been awesome for a lot of guys.”
“He has the experience,” added Muzzin. “You gain leadership [skills] once you’ve been in certain situations. He’s been on bad teams and on good teams. He’s seen it all. When you’ve been through so much, you can relate to things that could come up in the future. He can help younger guys, like myself, adapt to them, and take them on the right way. He’s just a really good leader and a really good hockey player.”
After practice on June 6, an unusually large number of media crowded around Williams at his locker stall. In fact, so many were involved in the media scrum around him that the crowd overflowed into center Jarret Stoll and Kopitar’s locker stalls, forcing Stoll to dress elsewhere and Kopitar to move his own media scrum interview to the temporarily vacant locker of backup goaltender Martin Jones.
During his time with the media, Williams sounded and appeared to be a bit uncomfortable with the attention.
“I’m very humbled by [the attention], and I’m a little uncomfortable talking about [himself], because it’s a team game,” he noted. “Nobody wants to talk about themselves here. I just feel that you got here for a reason. You followed your instincts and that’s simply what I do.”
Williams was the total team guy during the interview, deflecting the praise in the direction of his teammates.
“If it wasn’t me, it was going to be somebody else on this team,” he stressed. “We’re a team that feels like, when it’s crunch time, we’re going to be able to get it done.”
“I feel that we have a lot of guys on this team who want to be heroes, and it’s not something just to say,” he added. “Guys are on their toes and looking to do it, looking to be the guy.”
“During crunch time, you can’t be afraid to make a mistake. You’ve got to be on your toes and wanting to make a difference. Especially late in games, or in overtime, you need to find that extra bit of energy that’s going to win you a battle, because every single battle is important.”
In today’s Game 2 (4:00 PM PDT, Staples Center in Los Angeles), the Kings will be looking for Williams to do his usual thing…help lead the way, as he did in Game 1.
“I’d like to call him Mr. 1, 2, 3, and 4,” said Mitchell. “It takes four wins, so if he can [score the game-winning goal] three more times that would be real nice.”
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