Healthy Williams gives Kings an offensive boost
By Dave Lozo - NHL.com Staff Writer
NEWARK, N.J. -- Justin Williams didn't just arrive in Los Angeles three years ago with a reputation of being injury-prone -- it may as well have been tattooed on his forehead.
"That's something I'll probably have to deal with and that's fine, having the label of being injury-prone," Williams said. "But the last couple years, I've been able to play quite a few games, haven't missed that many, and right now, it's paying off."
For four seasons, Williams' health could be classified somewhere between a mean joke and a waking nightmare. Between 2008 and 2011, Williams missed significant time with a torn ACL, a back issue, a problem with his Achilles' tendon, a broken hand, a broken leg and dislocated shoulder.
Half of that time was spent with the Carolina Hurricanes, who dealt Williams to the Kings in 2009. Williams, who won a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006, was so chronically injured that when he joined the Kings, he was unable to play immediately because of the broken hand.
Williams played in a total of 130 games over four seasons because of his litany of ailments, and it was something that became as mentally taxing as it was physically trying. After scoring 64 goals over two seasons in which he played all 82 games with the Hurricanes, Williams was breaking down like an automobile that was well past its prime.
"There were a lot of things that mentally I just had to get over," Williams said. "I certainly never contemplated packing it in, but I certainly wondered if I would ever get to the level I was at in 2006. When you go through injuries like I have, you have a tendency to sometimes second-guess yourself, second-guess your workouts, second-guess everything. I had a few tough years there but I stuck with it.
"[GM] Dean Lombardi brought me over here and sometimes all you need is a fresh start somewhere and they gave me a big responsibility and so far it's good. I'm just another piece to the puzzle right now."
The 6-foot-1, 191-pound right wing has been a big contributor in the Kings' run to the Stanley Cup Final. In 16 playoff games, he has two goals and 10 assists, including the primary assist on Anze Kopitar's overtime goal in Game 1. During the regular season, Williams had 22 goals and 37 assists, his best offensive output since those two outstanding seasons with the Hurricanes.
More important to Williams, he made it through all 82 regular-season games this season without any injuries.
"I've still got little ways to go here, but one of the main things on my agenda this year was playing a full season, playing 82 games, being healthy," Williams said. "I've done that so far."
Williams was a first-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2000 and made the jump from the Plymouth Whalers to the NHL without a stop in the minor leagues. It was quite the ascension for Williams -- he had a hard time finding a place in his first season with the Whalers, who were coached at the time by Peter DeBoer.
DeBoer, now in his first season as Devils coach, told a story about Williams that showed his dedication and desire in the face of adversity that helped him get through those four draining seasons.
"I drafted him in the sixth round out of Junior C in Cobourg, Ont., which is outside Belleville," DeBoer said. "Kid came in and didn't make our team the first year. We put him down on the Tier 2 team. He just kept hanging around. You could tell he was a good hockey player, but was about 150 pounds, had a great heart.
"Next year came back to camp, played for one year for me, was a first-round pick, never saw him again. He stepped right into Philadelphia. Great story of perseverance. I've got a lot of time for Justin."
Williams laughed when asked how DeBoer straightened him out in Plymouth.
"I remember my first year, I got it pretty good from him quite a few times," Williams said. "That was a guy who came after me a little bit, but certainly made me more of a professional. He certainly helped my career, just getting started. I'm certainly appreciative for that."
Williams is now a big reason for the Kings' success, but he had to fight through more injuries when came to Los Angeles. He missed 28 games in 2009-10 with a broken leg and the final nine games of the 2010-11 regular season a shoulder injury that required him to wear a harness in the playoffs. Finally healthy, coach Darryl Sutter has been using him on the team's top line in the postseason with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.
With 10 assists, Williams ranks second in the NHL behind the Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk this spring.
"Everybody says he's the glue guy," Kopitar said. "For the most part, he's everywhere, at every position on the ice. He's been playing really well. He's scored some big goals and made some big plays, like he did in Game 1. We certainly like to see him play like that every night."
Williams is considered one of the funnier guys in the Kings' locker room -- and perhaps one of the more underrated players in the League. The 30-year-old has flown under the radar in recent years despite his Stanley Cup ring and ability to score about 25 goals per season when healthy since 2005-06.
The lack of attention is just fine with Williams.
"If you're looking for me to start pumping my tires, you're probably not going to get it," Williams said. "I'm appreciative for everything that I've got. I'm glad I have a role on this team that allows me to be successful. I'm going to keep trying as hard as I can."
He wasn't willing to toot his own horn about his play on the ice, but he was at least able to admit he does get a joke to land now and then in the locker room.
"Every now and then," Williams said, "I have my moments."
The same can be said for his play during the postseason, too.
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo