“I’m actually a firm believer in ‘everything happens for a reason,’” Justin Williams says, and how do you not take his word for gospel?
The 31-year-old has been traded twice in his National Hockey League career. Twice he has raised Stanley Cups on home ice, surrounded by the teams he joined.
“I’ll be probably traded again at some point,” Williams said. “But I feel the two trades that I’ve been a part of so far, they’ve worked out the best possible way for me, and they were the best things that happened in my hockey career. When I got traded from Philadelphia to Carolina, I got traded to a team that much like L.A. believed in me and put me in a prominent role to succeed.”
“I’m grateful for that opportunity both times.”
The sentiment is clearly reciprocated in the Los Angeles hockey staff’s evaluation of the 31-year old veteran who is taking part in his 12th NHL season.
“At the time, he was injured when we traded for him, so it didn’t look great, but we knew again what we were getting, and our expectations – he’s lived up to them,” said assistant Los Angeles assistant general manager Ron Hextall.
He certainly has. The shifty, intelligent right wing that helps uphold the Kings’ strong possession numbers has slotted in with ease opposite Dustin Brown on a line centered by Anze Kopitar. The trio generated nine points in the first round victory over St. Louis after combining for 55 points in last spring’s Stanley Cup run.
The timing of his March, 2009 arrival in Los Angeles seemed curious, as a Kings team that appeared to be approaching a more advanced chapter of its rebuilding process surrendered 24-year-old Patrick O’Sullivan and a second round draft pick to acquire the then-27-year-old who had battled injuries through portions of the early stage of his career. Williams had appeared in as many as 65 games only four times in his eight NHL seasons through 2008-09.
“We had him in Philly there, so we knew him well as a player and as a person, and I think the thing that you get from Willie every night is effort, and whether it’s first game of the season, or the Stanley Cup Finals, he gives you effort,” Hextall said. “There’s a lot of tenacity in his game, and obviously his ability to hold onto the puck is very unique, and we needed a player that made plays.”
As he has made plays, the injury concerns have dissipated. Williams last missed time when then-Calgary Flames defenseman and current teammate Robyn Regehr dislocated his shoulder with a hit during a March, 2011 game that kept him out for the final nine games of the 2010-11 season.
Since the beginning of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Williams has played in 163 of a possible 163 regular season and playoff games with the Kings and is a frontline component of the team’s attempt to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings.
It’s actually Williams’ first true opportunity to defend a title. The 2006-07 Hurricanes are the only team to fail to make the playoffs in its title defense year since Detroit’s back-to-back championships.
“We lost a lot of players in Carolina, and I just didn’t quite feel as though we had the same culture there,” Williams said. “Dean and his management staff have created something here that you feel good being a part of. You’re expected to win. You expect yourselves to win. Anything else is not acceptable. It’s tough to get, and we need to keep pushing towards that and not regress.”
The “culture” Williams spoke of is something familiar to Rob Scuderi, a fellow two-time Cup-winner on the roster, along with Dustin Penner and Colin Fraser. It’s rooted in a locker room in which players expect the most out of the player sitting next to them and across from them.
“It’s something where we try to push each other to be better,” Scuderi said. “Internal competition is the way teams get better. Even though we’re not wishing ill will on anyone else here, you’re still trying to play your best not necessarily to push someone out, but just push them to be better. The more competition you can have on a team, usually the better that team is.”
Though the output by Williams’ line is slightly down compared to the consistent production sustained through last year’s playoff run, there are players who have picked up the slack. Slava Voynov has three game-winning goals in the playoffs. Mike Richards leads the team with seven postseason points, leading to Darryl Sutter’s proclamation after the Game 1 win over the San Jose Sharks that “he just steps up.”
“When you look around our room, or during a hockey game when you don’t feel as though you have it tonight, you find a way or your teammates find a way to pick you up,” Williams said. “If one line’s not going, the other line will pick it up. You don’t feel as though you have a piano on your back trying to do everything yourself.”
“This is a team atmosphere, and everybody contributes.”