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The Jason Williams Debate

As the NHL off-season continues to move forward at an agonizingly slow pace, Red Wings fans continue to sit and wait for the brain trust to go out and secure some depth for the roster. As a fan, I have to admit that it's hard to sit and watch the other teams in the league scoop up talent from the FA pool, while we are stuck waiting to go to arbitration with a player who won't even be on the roster come September. Quite frankly, it sucks. And in a fashion typical of most loyal fans, I find myself becoming more and more impatient as the days without a signing pass by. I've analyzed who is out there, I've gone over the numbers and know who we can afford and I've talked to other fans about who they would like to see in Motown this fall.

The names I've heard run the gamut: Phil Kessel. Todd Bertuzzi. Mike Grier. Robert Lang. Take your pick of the litter. Almost every forward that is still available has been mentioned as a Wings target at some point or another. That's just the nature of the beast. But one name keeps popping up amongst the fans, and automatically causes a line to be drawn in the sand between them: Jason Williams.

For those of you that may not remember, Jason Williams was a part of the Red Wings organization in one capacity or another from 2000 until he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007. When playing well, Williams resembled a young Darren McCarty: physical play, some scoring touch and an energizer. When he was off, it was like watching Marian Hossa float through this past year's postseason. Anyways, Williams plateaued with the Wings during the '05-'06 campaign, where he posted 21 goals and 37 assists over 80 games, adding another goal and assist in the playoffs. The following season, however, Williams saw a dip in production, notching 26 points over 58 games, and was eventually traded to Chicago in a three-way deal that brought Kyle Calder to the Red Wings. Following a 36 point performance over 43 games in Chi-town, Williams would be signed as an unrestricted free agent by the Atlanta Thrashers, and was almost immediately paired up with Ilya Kovalchuk. But after only notching 18 points in 41 games, Williams was shipped to the Columbus Blue Jackets, where he tallied 29 points in 39 games, adding a lone assist in the playoff series against the Wings.

OK, now that everyone is caught up on the historical facts of Jason Williams, it's time to address the questions of the hour: does he belong back in a Wings uniform? There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of gray area on this one when it comes to fan opinions. On the surface, Williams seems to make sense. He's a guy who has been here before, who knows what to expect playing in a market like Detroit, and who can contribute offensively. Not surprisingly, many of the fans who think the Wings' roster moves should be based solely on nostalgia are clamoring for Williams to get back here. There is an inherent belief that Williams is "ahead of the curve" when it comes to learning the style of hockey the Wings play, and that his best offensive seasons are ahead of the 29 year old. Financially, Williams is close to what we can afford, but would have to take a pay cut in some form or another.

But let's look at the other side of the coin. Yes, Williams has played in Detroit. Yes, Williams has played for Babcock. And if the red flags aren't going up for you right now, then you are more than likely one of those fans I mentioned above. The fact remains that Jason Williams wanted out of Detroit during that '06-'07 campaign, and made that apparent enough that he got his wish with a full-time trip to the Blackhawks. But it wasn't just Williams who was disappointed that year. The brain trust was reportedly none too pleased with the way Williams was developing, as he had a tendency to only show up once every three games or so. Yes, he could pop the goals in when he wanted to, but that's the problem: he didn't want to often enough. When he was traded, Williams was happy to have a "fresh start", but never really found a comfortable fit outside of the Red Wings organization, thusly bouncing down to Atlanta and ultimately winding up in Columbus. As for fitting into Babcock's mold, I'm not sure that's such a slam dunk anymore. Babcock's offensive game plan got picked apart by the Ducks and Penguins, and I wouldn't be surprised to see some changes to the game plan when the Wings hit the ice, thus putting Williams behind the curve again.

And now we have come full circle, as Williams is again front and center for the Red Wings. On paper, Williams meets the criteria as a player who could notch anywhere between 25 and 50 points. He'd be a solid third liner, adding depth and scoring without sacrificing the physical play. But what about the past? Bygones may be bygones, but there are folks in the organization that have to be hesitant about re-signing a guy who wanted out. And the fact that Williams still has trouble consistently contributing is something that hurts his stock as well. Plus, Williams made $2.2 million last season, and would have to take a sizable hit to make his way back to Detroit, which begs the question of whether or not 1)he would take such a cut or 2)is worth paying over $1 million a season for. Financially, Williams would likely make more than a Ville Leino, Darren Helm and Kirk Maltby, but less than Kris Draper. Translation: he SHOULD be able to meet the scoring demands of his paycheck, in comparison to the other players around him that are making comparable money. However, if Helm and Leino find a way to rev the engines this season and really start contributing while Williams lolly gags through the season, nobody will be happy.

The short of this is that, when you get to this level of FA, there is always going to be an increased risk that the player may not meet the expectations that are set. Guys run hot and cold, injuries are always a factor, and they may not fit the system in the way you had hoped. That's what happens when you take an up-and-down guy like Williams. You bet on his potential and hope he pans out.

If it was up to me and I was sitting in Ken Holland's seat, I'm not focusing my time or attention on Williams. I'm keeping my eye on him in case some other options fall through, but at 29 years old, I still question his maturity and commitment to showing up every night. If younger talent is what I am looking for, I'd prefer to turn my attention to someone like Patrick Eaves or Taylor Pyatt, who both need to really prove that they belong at this level and would be willing to work through camp to land an entry level type deal, a la Dan Cleary. If I can't land one of them, I think I prefer to take another run at Petr Sykora for a discount or go for Mike Grier, who should come home to Detroit for no more than $750K. The key here is maximizing every dollar I spend, which I don't do with a guy like Williams unless he's going to take a Motown discount. Given his history with the organization and a relatively productive year, I wouldn't get my hopes up about him taking a financial break to be a Red Wing.

Final move: Land Pyatt or Eaves to an entry-level deal worth between $500K and 750K, and snag Grier to a $750K contract. Leave Jason Williams' Red Wings legacy in the past.

OK folks, get after me. Can't wait to hear your thoughts.