|Justin Williams missed most of the 2009-10 season after breaking his leg on Dec. 26.
The mind may be able and the heart may be willing, but unless the muscles are cooperating, a professional athlete can find himself in a tough spot.
That’s essentially where Justin Williams
found himself in the spring, itching to play hockey again, feeling like it was possible, but ultimately finding himself right back where he started: out of the lineup, watching big games instead of playing in them.
Williams willed himself back from a major leg injury at the end of last season, but clearly wasn’t himself. Now completely healthy, Williams was one of the stars of Kings training camp and is expected to be a major contributor this season.
The stakes are high for Williams, both in terms of the Kings and himself.
In terms of team, Williams has initially been cast in the second-line right-wing role, meaning he will be counted on for scoring depth, perhaps in the range of 25 goals.
In terms of self, Williams just turned 29 years old and is in the final year of his contract. He has missed 118 games over the past three seasons due to injuries, and prospective employers will be watching to see if Williams can stay healthy and productive.
So far, so good.
Williams capped an impressive preseason with a goal in Sunday’s game against the Anaheim Ducks and finally seems to have the combination of health and confidence.
"This year is too important for me to let it go by without giving it everything," Williams said. "Coming prepared to the games and starting right and having a great preseason, it's exactly what I need to do to get back to game shape, where I want to be."
The Kings, and those around the NHL, know what Williams can do when healthy. In his last two full seasons, Williams was a 30-goal scorer and a Stanley Cup champion.
Only problem is, that last full season was four years ago. Along with Williams’ reputation as a capable scorer comes an unfortunate tag, that of "injury prone."
The Kings hoped that was all history when they acquired Williams in a three-team trade in 2008-09, and things were going well for Williams early last season, when he played right wing on a high-scoring line with Anze Kopitar
and Ryan Smyth.
Smyth returned from a prolonged upper-body injury on Dec. 26, but on the line’s first shift back together, in Phoenix, Williams’ leg got twisted awkwardly behind the net.
The news was not good: a broken leg, and injury that rightfully could have cost Williams the rest of the season. But while Williams wouldn’t say so publicly, he had set a goal for himself. He wanted to return by early March, a couple weeks ahead of schedule.
Williams narrowly missed his goal, but did return, although he had only two goals and three assists in his final 16 games.
Williams’ tenacity was admirable, but it became clear that he just didn’t have the legs to play at top form, and after a rough Game 1 of a first-round series against Vancouver, Williams was made a healthy scratch by coach Terry Murray.
Williams returned for the final two games, but the Kings lost both, leaving Williams the summer to return to previous form. He appears to have used the time wisely.
Continue to Part II.