The Los Angeles Kings’ roster underwent some significant changes when the 2015 free-agency period kicked off on July 1, highlighted by the loss of veteran winger Justin Williams.
After six seasons in L.A. – during which Williams helped guide the Kings to two Stanley Cup championships – the 33-year-old has decided to leave Manhattan Beach for Washington D.C., signing a two-year $6.5 million deal with the Capitals.
— theScore (@theScore) July 2, 2015
His departure marks the end of an era of sorts for the Kings, who will head into the 2015-16 season also missing veterans Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards, Robyn Regehr, and, most likely, Slava Voynov.
L.A.’s loss is Washington’s gain, however, as Williams’ unconventional strengths will fill a hole for the Capitals that has persisted since captain Alex Ovechkin‘s rookie campaign.
In the 10 seasons since Ovechkin debuted for the Capitals back in 2005-06, the club has earned a playoff berth seven times. In six of those seven years, Washington was eliminated from the postseason in the same specific way – a Game 7 loss.
It’s an issue that consistently troubles the team each season. On six separate occasions – starting in 2008 and continuing until their most recent postseason run – the Capitals have seemed on the verge of playoff glory, but in that moment when they’ve been pushed to the brink, they’ve repeatedly wilted and fallen apart.
After 115 playoff games and three Stanley Cups, Williams has cemented his place in history as one of the game’s premier postseason performers. The term “clutch” is thrown around often in today’s game, finding a place in headlines after any one of the league’s marquee players strings together a couple of mid-season overtime tallies.
When it comes to the art of clutch scoring, Williams is the unequivocal king, having earned the apt nickname “Mr. Game 7″ due to his historic performance in such situations.
The 2014 playoff MVP has suited up for seven Game 7’s in his career, scoring seven goals and 14 points in the process – the most points scored by anyone in such situations. Williams’ exceptional performance hasn’t been a flash in the pan either – he’s done it for nearly a decade.
His performance has drawn praise from many around the league, including Hall of Famer Rob Blake, who saw Williams’ abilities up close as assistant General Manager of the Kings. Speaking about Williams to ESPN.com, Blake had high praise for the veteran:
He’s one of the most clutch players that ever played the game. Guys just have that mentality, they want to be the guy. Other guys play to be safe.
After helping the Carolina Hurricanes win their first ever championship back in 2006, Williams earned his second ring in 2012 as the Kings similarly netted their first Cup in franchise history.
It was in 2014, at age 32, that Williams truly showed his clutch expertise. Finishing with the second-most points (25), second-most assists (16), and third-most goals (9) among all playoff skaters, the veteran guided L.A. to their second championship in three seasons – further cementing his Game 7 reputation by tallying two goals and three assists in the three Game 7’s that came up during the Kings’ run.
While it’s a skill that may seem somewhat unconventional, Williams has proven time and time again that it’s no fluke. He’s simply got the constitution to rise the occasion, to find a new level when put in those do-or-die situations.
His ability to raise his game and exceed expectations didn’t come from a healthy smattering of luck – rather, it’s a testament to the perseverance he’s exuded throughout his entire career. The 33-year-old vet has certainly had his highs during his 15-year career, but they didn’t come without a fair amount of adversity – namely two separate reconstructive knee surgeries, as well as a torn Achilles heel tendon, a broken ankle, and a broken hand (all of which occurred prior to his two Cup runs with the Kings).
Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi echoed the sentiment that Williams’ past trials made him into the exceptional athlete he is today, telling ESPN.com:
Some things he’s gone through in his life, I can relate to … He’s got a little rebel in him, but those guys rise to the occasion. He’s a special, special human being.
This trait is one the Capitals have been sorely lacking on an organizational level for the last decade.
Even with Ovechkin – this generation’s most prolific goalscorer – leading their offense, the Capitals have continued to fall short in those sudden death situations. Despite boasting 80 game-winning goals during regular season play (the fourth-highest mark among all active players), Ovechkin has seen much less success in this category come playoff time.
The Capitals captain’s numbers certainly haven’t been horrible when his team’s fate is on the line. In the six Game 7’s that ended the Caps’ playoff hopes, Ovechkin tallied three goals, two assists, and 31 shots – but he simply hasn’t been enough to allow his team to move on.
Interestingly, in the only three Game 7’s the Capitals have won since Ovechkin debuted, the Russian sniper had little impact at all. In these three Game 7 wins – against the Rangers (2009), Bruins (2012), and Islanders (2015) – Ovechkin racked up zero goals and only one assist (a secondary assist, in fact).
Simply put, when the Capitals see their series progress to Game 7, they’re thrown into disarray. They’ve seen Ovechkin light it up while they lose and head home empty-handed, and they’ve seen their captain post a goose-egg while they win and move on to the next round. More often than not, however, they’ve seen their season end.
It may seem like an easily avoidable situation, as most playoff series are decided prior to the seven-game mark, but that hasn’t been the case for Washington. Of the 11 playoff match-ups they’ve participated in since Ovechkin’s rookie season, nine of them have extended to seven games. That’s an astounding trend.
After nearly a decade of horrible luck, the Capitals’ brass have taken notice and found a way to reverse this misfortune in the form of Williams.
There are no guarantees, especially when it comes to “clutch scoring”, but after identifying their weaknesses and acquiring far and away the best option to remedy the issue, Washington may be poised for a historic 2015-16 campaign.
It isn’t simply a matter of the Caps signing Williams and thus being shoe-ins to win every Game 7 that may come their way. Rather, it’s the mental side of it.
This sport is one wherein confidence can mean the difference between rising to become one of the elite and getting lost in the middle of the pack – between hoisting that 34-pound Cup over your head and going home empty-handed two months too soon.
After falling short in the same specific situation over and over again, the Capitals are surely a group that gets shaken when forced to move past Game 6. We’ve seen it time and time again, even as recently as last May, when Washington was eliminated by the Rangers via Game 7 loss for the third time in four years (and the third consecutive time in the Caps’ last three playoff appearances).
That won’t be the case in 2016. Regardless of what result they actually achieve, the Capitals will have peace of mind in knowing that, should a Game 7 befall them, they’ve got the ultimate ace up their sleeve – Mr. Game 7 himself, ready to do what he does best. After all, for all the personal records Williams holds in Game 7 situations, one stat reigns above them all – he’s won all seven of them (nearly double the number of wins posted by the Capitals in the entire history of their franchise).
Such improved confidence in an aspect of their game that has repeatedly been their downfall could be a significant factor in allowing Ovechkin and his teammates to raise their game in 2016. Add in the fact that star winger T.J. Oshie will now join Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and the rest of the club’s dangerous offensive weapons, and it seems the championship tides may finally be turning for the snake-bitten Capitals.
Much is yet to be decided for the club, but if their upcoming season goes as well as their recent offseason has, then Williams could soon be helping his third franchise lift their first-ever Stanley Cup.