Late into Wednesday’s first night of free agency, the Washington Capitals landed one of the best remaining unrestricted forwards, finalizing a two-year deal with winger Justin Williams worth $6.25 million. A three-time Stanley Cup winner, including two over the past four seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, the 33-year-old Williams fills the Capitals’ desire to bring aboard a top-six forward during the summer.
“Justin is a proven winner and we feel he will be a great addition to our club,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said in a news release. “We felt it was important for our team to add someone of his caliber, as a hockey player and as a veteran leader.”
During breakdown day last month, not long after Washington’s postseason ended in Game 7 against the New York Rangers, General Manager Brian MacLellan dubbed such an addition one of his top priorities, and the Capitals had spent much of the past several weeks exploring trade options to fill the need. Instead, hours after Metropolitan Division rivals Pittsburgh and Columbus added key pieces up front in Phil Kessel and Brandon Saad, respectively, Washington made an after-hours dip into the forward pool.
With eight career 40-point seasons under his belt and only one missed game over the past four years, Williams projects to either station as the top-line right winger beside Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, or as a second-line winger beside young center Evgeny Kuznetsov. Nicknamed “Mr. Game 7” for his heroics in such situations, none bigger than during the Kings’ run to the 2013-14 Stanley Cup, when he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy, Williams has also never posted an even-strength shot attempt rate lower than 51.6 percent, according to war-on-ice.com. In seven career Game 7s, all victories for Los Angeles, Williams’ 14 points is an NHL record.
#Capitals sign Justin Williams: Game 7 victories Justin Williams: 7 Capitals franchise history: 4
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) July 2, 2015
The signing, which has not yet been confirmed by the Capitals, also increases the likelihood that forward Joel Ward will not return. Ward has been steadfast in asking for a four-year contract, which Washington have balked at, and Williams’s average annual value of $3.25 million is comparable to what the 34-year-old Ward will command as an unrestricted free agent. His agent wouldn’t rule out the Capitals when reached Wednesday night, saying the two sides had kept up communication, but with three still-unsigned restricted free agents — goaltender Braden Holtby, forward Marcus Johansson and Kuznetsov — and $14.4 million to spend until the salary cap ceiling, the Capitals have more pressing matters to address before adding another right winger.
With Williams and former Pittsburgh defenseman Taylor Chorney onboard, Washington currently has 10 forwards, seven defensemen and two goaltenders on its active roster.
NOTE: In depth-boosting moves for its American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, the Capitals signed two forwards and two defensemen to two-way, one-year deals Wednesday evening: Carter Camper, Sean Collins, Mike Moore and Aaron Ness.
The 30-year-old Moore, returns to the organization after serving as an alternate captain, and could step into the captaincy with defenseman Steve Oleksy headed to the Penguins’ organization. A lifelong minor-leaguer, the defenseman has 123 points in 419 career AHL games. Camper and Collins, both 26-year-old forwards, come from the Columbus and Ottawa organizations, respectively, each spending the 2014-15 seasons with their respective AHL affiliates. Collins saw time in eight games with the Blue Jackets, while Camper has logged three career NHL games, all with Boston in 2011-12.
The youngest of the crop, Ness has appeared in 29 games with the New York Islanders and captained Bridgeport last season, ranking second on the Sound Tigers with 37 assists and third with 45 points. All four are expected to add a much-needed veteran presence to a relatively young Bears squad, which will receive an influx of prospects this season, like Madison Bowey, Jakub Vrana, Christian Djoos and Riley Barber.