Williams right on target with Whale

by Bruce Berlet || AHL On The Beat Archive

When Jeremy Williams finally realized his goal of playing in the NHL five years ago, he had Toronto Maple Leafs captain, 2006 Olympic gold medalist and future Hall of Famer Mats Sundin sitting beside him in the locker room.

“There’s not much of a better leader than that on or off the ice,” said Williams, who leads the Connecticut Whale in goals (22) and points (40) and was the team’s representative in the AHL All-Star Classic last weekend in Hershey, Pa. “Not in a negative aspect or because he was old (36), but he was always like a father figure, which was really weird. To the guys, he was that composed and that mature that you didn’t want to anger him or anything because you didn’t want him to be disappointed in you.”

Sundin, the first overall pick by the Quebec Nordiques in 1989 who retired in 2009, assisted on two of the first three NHL goals by Williams, who set a record by scoring in each of his first three games – in different seasons (2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08). But in his one game with the New York Rangers against the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 24, Williams’ only claim to fame in 3-1/2 minutes of ice time was getting two high-sticks to the chin on his first two shifts without a penalty being called.

“It was, ‘Welcome to New York,’” Williams said with a smile. “(But) I’ve been very fortunate, and I don’t know if it’s all luck or just in the right place at the right time.”

How about a laser shot that would make Al MacInnis, Zdeno Chara or Chris Pronger proud? It also makes Williams a threat from almost anywhere, especially on a one-timer from the point or the lower circle on the power play. But in the All-Star Classic, Williams demonstrated more accuracy than power. He was the only player to hit all four targets in the corners of the net in the accuracy shooting event, batting .500 (4-for-8) in his skills competition debut. Then in the All-Star Game the next night, Williams scored on his only shot, a rising wrister from the lower left circle just under the crossbar as the Eastern Conference rallied for an 11-8 victory over the Western Conference.

“His biggest asset is his shot and scoring touch, and he obviously has brought that to us,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “He’s one of the league leaders in scoring goals, which will always make for an interesting type of player to watch in an All-Star type of environment.”

With as many as eight Whale players on recent call-ups to the Rangers, Williams also added some penalty killing to his repertoire. But he’s best known for his shot and has tried to help some of the Whale’s younger players, notably rookie Kelsey Tessier, about shooting the puck quickly.

And accuracy is nothing new for Williams, who credited the trait to his early days playing hockey on a family farm in Glenavon, Sask. (pop. 600), located about an hour outside Regina. Williams’ father, Kevin, made ice for Jeremy and his younger brother, Tristan, every winter, but it wasn’t exactly like Madison Square Garden.

“If you missed the net, there were no boards, so you’d better be hitting the net or we’d be searching for pucks in the snow,” Williams said with a wide smile. “My father would go out with the hose and spray it down for me and my younger brother. And if he didn’t have time to build a rink, he would clean off an area of farm water so it would freeze over. He would wait until he could drive on it with the tractor, push all the snow off and then spray it down with a little water.”

Williams also played baseball for a year and dabbled in rodeo with the rest of his family. His 15-year-old sister, Hailee, recently won the Canadian junior women’s championship in barrel racing, which came long after Jeremy chose hockey over team roping.

Good thing because Williams quickly became a scoring machine with Swift Current in the Western Hockey League, capped by career highs of 52 goals and 101 points in 68 games in his final season (2003-04) with the Broncos. The Maple Leafs’ seventh-round pick in the 2003 NHL entry draft then played his first full pro season with St. John’s, getting 16 goals and 20 assists in 75 games. Williams spent the next four seasons playing mostly with the Marlies but also getting a shot with one of the NHL’s Original Six teams.

But Williams and center Kris Newbury, on recall from the Whale to the Rangers for the second time, then signed with the Detroit Red Wings last season. Even before the Griffins failed to make the playoffs, the Red Wings decided to start shedding veteran players, including trading Newbury to the Rangers for wing Jordan Owens on Mar. 3.

When the Red Wings didn’t re-sign Williams, he and his agent, Craig Oster, began looking for employment and decided on the Rangers, who paid Williams a nice AHL salary of $250,000 on July 12.

“We just felt like it was a good fit,” said Williams, who turned 28 on Jan. 26. “I wasn’t sure where I was headed this year after sitting around free agency for a bit, and my agent and I knew what we wanted in a contract, and opportunity-wise, where I wanted to be. He thought the Rangers might need secondary scoring and I might get a chance to help out. I had a few offers from other teams, but it’s one thing to get a contract to play in the AHL, but I was looking for a place to play in the NHL.”

Williams has had what he calls his most consistent season as he continues to try to improve on the defensive end, which has kept him from more time in the NHL.

“Aside from my first season, I’ve had injury problems, and it’s kind of hard to be consistent and score goals if you’re not playing,” Williams said. “So staying healthy and being able to play the last few years has helped a lot. Being good defensively never came naturally for me. I play puck possession, so I’m more dangerous in the offensive zone. I figure if you’re in the offensive zone all the time, then you don’t have to play defense.

“But the last seasons, especially last year after leaving Toronto, I was trying to work on my defensive play in Grand Rapids, and I think that helped me out a lot. And coming (to Hartford), the same thing.”

Gernander said Williams was quite deserving of the All-Star honor.

“He was a legitimate candidate,” Gernander said. “He has been a big part of our success and has lots of positives going for him. I thought we had a couple of guys who would make real good candidates, and they chose Jeremy. Congratulations.”

Some of Williams’ nine goals in 32 NHL games have been highlight-reel material, and he has duplicated some of those this season.

“He’s a shooter, so if he’s playing well, he’s going to get goals,” Gernander said. “There are always areas of improvement, especially if you’re at the American League level and there’s something that the NHL teams would like to see you improve upon. I think he has worked hard and brought us success helping out offensively and been a pretty good part of our team.

“He’s obviously a capable goal-scorer, so he’s going to have to bring a little bit more to catch the eye of an NHL squad that says this special talent that he has not only translates to the NHL level, but he can also bring (something else) to the game. I don’t want to say he’s a specialist, but he has a shot that kind of separates him from a lot of players in that he’s a very effective shooter. That’s how he scores a lot of his goals with the one-timer or from the slot with a good slap shot or snap shot with his good release. He’s maximizing one of his strengths or key components.”

Williams’ NHL-type shot is a major reason he is again being used on the point on the power play, which is handled mainly by assistant coach J.J. Daigneault.

“J.J. had gone to the library and watched some of Williams’ previous games and seen that he had a big shot that he can bring and discusses it with him,” Gernander said. “He figured it might be a good spot where he might fit on our power play, and it has worked out well. He does have a really good release and is a good goal-scorer.”

Williams’ 20th goal this season was a beauty, a strong finish of his own rebound after a brilliant rush and pass by 20-year-old defenseman Michael Del Zotto with 37.2 seconds left in overtime that gave the Whale a 3-2 victory over the Norfolk Admirals.

Williams said his game and how he acts in the locker room never really changes regardless of who’s on the team or on recall to the Rangers.

“I’ve always thought that everybody can talk,” Williams said, “but it’s more what you do on the ice is what the young guys and other guys on the ice are going to follow. I’m not saying I’m a great leader, but I try and help as much as I can. I try to talk to someone if I feel I can give advice. You can take it and listen to it and believe it, or you can take it and forget it. What you do with advice is up to you and whether or not you believe in it.”

Williams was named to the Eastern Conference team by a panel of AHL coaches. His 22 goals are tied for fifth in the league with former Wolf Pack wing Nigel Dawes. The Pirates’ Mark Mancari has vaulted to the goal-scoring lead with 27.

“I really wasn’t sure if I’d make the team,” said Williams, named an All-Star for the first time after only playing with a group of Western Hockey League players against a touring top Russian junior team when he was with Swift Current in 2001. “But it’s nice and obviously an honor and a privilege to be named, especially on a team like ours with so many skilled, veteran forwards and some new, up-and-coming young guys. It must have been hard to choose one guy off our team just based on the amount of skill level we have.

“I’m fairly happy with the way things have started,” he said. “I’m pretty tough on myself. To me, I think I should have 35 goals already just based on the number of chances that I’ve had. For me, it’s just being reliable and making the right plays. Everybody is going to make mistakes – I make mistakes – but it’s limiting them and using brains over anything.”

Williams said he has benefited from playing with center Tim Kennedy, who has a pass-first, shoot-second philosophy that fits well with Williams.

“We have a little different styles,” Williams said. “I score goals just going up and down the ice, and Tim is a very skilled, shifty kind of guy. But the last few games, I feel we’ve really started clicking and understanding each other as players, so playing with him is really good, too.”

The Whale has been a bit topsy-turvy in Williams’ first season in Hartford, first because of so many new, young players, especially on defense, and more recently due to all the call-ups to the Rangers. That was epitomized by a team record-tying, nine-game losing streak (0-7-0-2) that started a 1-9-2-1 run from Oct. 20 to Nov. 17 and dropped the then Wolf Pack into the Atlantic Division cellar. That was immediately followed by a 12-1-0-2 surge that included winning streaks of six and four games and vaulted the Whale into second place. The Whale (22-18-2-5) are now in fourth place with 51 points, 13 points behind leader Manchester and one back of Worcester.

“We’ve been pretty good since that skid,” Williams said, “but I guess you’d rather have a nine-game losing streak at the start of the season rather than at the end, so that’s a positive that we learned from that. When a team is winning, everybody is just more confident and making better plays. Confidence is a huge part of winning and losing, and as long as you cannot get too high or get too low, it’s pretty good.”

Williams has certainly been pretty good in his first 47 games with the Wolf Pack/Whale and deserving of the All-Star recognition.