- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Washington Capitals signed Justin Williams in 2015 in part because the team was looking for a veteran leader with championship experience and a player who could deliver in big moments.

Ultimately, the move wasn’t enough to propel the Capitals to the Stanley Cup.

But Williams was a calming presence and he stood out in the playoffs — like in Game 5 of the Capitals‘ first-round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs last season where he scored the game-winning goal in overtime in a 2-1 win.

So when Williams departed for the Carolina Hurricanes last summer, he left a couple of holes: his steady, positive influence in the locker room and his dependable production on the ice.

Williams, who returns to Capital One Arena for the first time during the regular season Thursday, scored 24 goals for the Capitals last season, tied for third-most on the team. Coincidentally, the Capitals also lost Marcus Johansson, who was traded to New Jersey in July after also finishing the season with 24 goals.

Through 43 games last season, Williams accounted for 10.7 percent of Washington’s 130 goals with 14. Johansson had the same number of goals through 43 games as Williams (and T.J. Oshie.) By the end of the season, Williams and Johansson each accounted for 9.2 percent of the Capitals‘ 248 goals.

For the 2017-18 season, the Capitals have scored two more goals through 43 games despite ranking dead-last in shots on goal per game. The Capitals finished 15th in the same category last year.

Where is the production coming from without Williams and Johansson?

For starters, Alex Ovechkin has six more goals than he did at this point in 2017. Ovechkin has scored 20.5 percent of the Capitals‘ total goals — compared just 12.6 percent in 2016-17. Ovechkin is on pace for his eighth 50-goal campaign.

Evgeny Kuznetsov is also rising to the occasion after signing an eight-year, $62.4 million contract in the summer. The deal forced the Capitals to shed Johansson’s contract in order to resign Kuznetsov, and Washington general manager Brian McCallen made it clear he expected more from Kuznetsov because of it.

Kuznetsov is second on the Capitals in both goals (13) and points (40).

The Capitals, too, have benefitted from low-risk signings who have exceeded expectations.

Devante Smith-Pelly and Alex Chiasson — both of whom who were signed to the league minimum — have six and seven goals for the Capitals, respectively. Chiasson earned a roster spot on a tryout, while Smith-Pelly was initially seen as a project.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said expectations didn’t change because of new faces on the roster.

“The one thing I think we’ve developed in the last few years is a good culture,” Trotz said. “And that culture will allow you to battle through [problems] and find a way, if you will.”

Bringing back Williams wasn’t an option for the cash-strapped Capitals, who have just $799,054 of salary cap space. Instead, Williams opted for a two-year, $9 million deal with the Carolina Hurricanes, where he spent five years in the mid-2000s — a stint which included winning the Stanley Cup in 2006.

The 36-year-old joined a Hurricanes team full of young talent, looking to take the next step. Lately, Carolina has failed to keep pace with the ultra competitive Metropolitan Division, having lost four of their last five games.

But Williams has had a solid season with seven goals and 19 assists.

In a conference call in July, Williams said he didn’t hear much from the Capitals in free agency, adding he didn’t take offense.

“We had a couple great years, but weren’t as successful as what we wanted as a team,” Williams said.

The Capitals were forced to regroup. But the changes, so far, have brought the Capitals back to first place in the Metro.

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