Another playoff disappointment—as well as a host of expiring player contracts—has left the Capitals with a ton of questions to answer this offseason. Over the next month, Jill Sorenson, JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir will take a close look at the 20 biggest issues facing the team as the business of hockey kicks into high gear.
What do you do if you can’t find playoff success? You sign a player who has won three Stanley Cups, one Conn Smythe Trophy and is 7-0 in Game 7s. Washington signed Mr. Game 7 himself, Justin Williams in the summer of 2015 for his veteran leadership, but he also brought a lot of production to the team as well with 52 and 48 points respectively in his two seasons with the Caps. Unfortunately even he could not lead Washington past the second round as he lost in Game 7 for the first time in his career this season. Now his contract is up and the Caps have a tough decision ahead of them.
Today’s question: Should the Caps re-sign Justin Williams?
Sorenson: Ugh, I hate this question. Justin Williams has been such an important part of the Capitals’ growth and success the past two years, I hate to admit the fact that Washington may have to let him go. However, he will be 36 this fall, and while in his next contract, he may not earn his $3.5 million salary he did the past two years, there is probably a team who could afford to pay him somewhere in that neighborhood. He has put up 52 and 48 points respectively in his last two years here, which are higher than his previous three years in LA, despite playing fewer minutes per game, on average. If for some reason Williams still believed his best chance to win a fourth Stanley Cup was here with the Washington Capitals, and he is not ready to hang up his skates, maybe he would be willing to take a large pay cut to stay. That is a decision Williams has earned the right to make.
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Regan: If you are a team that cannot get over the hump in the postseason, Justin Williams is exactly the type of player you need. Yes, Washington was still unable to get past the second round for the past two seasons with Williams in tow, but his is still a voice you want in the locker room come the postseason. The problem with bringing him back, however, is money. The Caps just don’t have much of it and probably not enough to sign a player who will turn 36 in October. If I am Brian MacLellan, after I settle all my RFAs my first call is to T.J. Oshie. If he re-signs, then there is zero money left for Williams. If he doesn’t, then MacLellan’s second call should be to Williams to see just how low he would be willing to go. A veteran leader like him will undoubtedly be able to get more on the open market than in Washington, but he turned down a bigger offer from Montreal to sign with the Caps originally. Would he be willing to do it again? If not, you have to let him walk.
El-Bashir: A phrase I heard often during my four years covering the NFL was, “You can’t keep everybody.” And my gut tells me that phrase could end up applying to Williams, who has accumulated an even 100 points (46 goals, 54 assists) in two years as a member of the Caps. To me, this is GM Brian MacLellan's second toughest decision after sorting out T.J. Oshie’s future in Washington. Let’s consider the pros: Williams is still a productive player and he’s savvy enough to make adjustments that compensate for what Father Time has taken from him. Experience matters, too. Look no further than Chris Kunitz, the Penguins’ Game 7 hero. The 37-year-old alternate captain’s numbers have declined, but he earned every bit of his $3.85 million salary on Thursday night by being the Penguins’ best player in their biggest game of the season. Williams has risen to the occasion in the past and his DNA suggests he’ll do it again. The cons: Williams will be 36 in October and the Caps need to get younger and faster. MacLellan also must consider the need to create full-time openings for prospects like Jakub Vrana, a winger who’s itching to take the next step and costs significantly less. In the end, I suspect the cap-strapped Caps will make a play to keep No. 14, who earned $3.25 million each of the past two years. And then Williams, who has said he’d like to stay but may well attract longer, more lucrative offers elsewhere, will have a business decision to make. My take: both sides will ultimately decide it’s best to move on.