Amid all the acclaim surrounding Justin Williams’ return to the Carolina Hurricanes over the weekend, it’s easy to forget the circumstances that led to his departure eight-plus years later. There’s no arguing with the immediate results – trading the injured Williams for Erik Cole helped boost the Hurricanes into the playoffs in 2009 – but there were obvious long-term consequences.
With the caveat that the trade worked, delivering the Hurricanes a healthy scoring winger and propelling the team all the way to the Eastern Conference finals, it’s still fair to wonder: How did the Hurricanes let one of the greatest clutch players in NHL history slip out of their hands? What was then-general manager Jim Rutherford thinking? It’s safe to say he knew the risks at the time.
“There’s some emptiness in my stomach right now, because I have to trade a player like that,” Rutherford said on that day, March 4, 2009.
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A couple key factors played into the trade, which was actually a three-way deal that saw Williams traded to the Los Angeles Kings for Patrick O’Sullivan and O’Sullivan traded to the Edmonton Oilers for Cole, who was traded to Edmonton the previous summer. (O’Sullivan would later play for the Hurricanes, briefly.)
The first, and most important, was Williams’ durability. At the time, he was out indefinitely with a broken hand that came after a torn Achilles tendon that came after a serious knee injury, the second of his career. From the start of the 2007-08 season, Williams had missed 78 of 147 games at the time of the trade. The Kings, who were a year or two away from contending, could afford to wait for him to get healthy.
There were real questions whether Williams, who was only 27, was going to be plagued with persistent health problems over the course of his career, as some players unfortunately are. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case. Williams broke his ankle in his first full season with the Kings, but hasn’t missed significant time in the seven seasons since.
Then there was the coaching change. Peter Laviolette had been fired three months earlier, and it’s hard to envision Williams being traded under any circumstances with Laviolette behind the bench. Paul Maurice, returning to the franchise after being fired in 2003, didn’t have the same history with Williams. He was hired to get the team into the playoffs and wouldn’t stand in the way of anything that would help right away.
Combine those two dynamics with the win-now desperation that enveloped the franchise in the wake of missing the playoffs in the first two seasons after winning the Stanley Cup, with the Hurricanes in a four-team race for two playoff spots, and that’s how a trade that may seem short-sighted now made perfect sense then – even if the Hurricanes haven’t made the playoffs since.
At the time, I wrote this, albeit not exactly in grammatically correct fashion: “Given this franchise’s history, it’s no surprise that it looked to its past for inspiration – first Paul Maurice, then Cole – what are the odds Williams is back here in 2011?”
It only took six years longer than expected.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock