Williams making the most of his chances.
The Maple Leafs have found a somewhat peculiar formula for generating offence from Jeremy Williams, their 7th-round selection in the 2003 NHL Draft. Recall him from their AHL farm team, the Toronto Marlies.
Monday, December 8 marked the fourth time in as many seasons that Williams has been summoned to make the five-minute cab ride from the Marlies’ rink at Ricoh Coliseum to the Air Canada Centre. On each of those four occasions, the 24-year-old native of Regina has accepted the challenge by scoring a goal.
Williams’ first audition at the NHL level came on the Leafs’ last game of the 2005-06 season, April 18, when he beat Pittsburgh’s Jean Sebastien Caron on a 2-on-1 rush. The following year, he played a single game for Toronto, scoring against the Montreal Canadiens on February 26, 2007. One year plus a day later, he found the net once again, converting a Mats Sundin pass from behind the net and beating Florida’s Tomas Vokoun.
“He’s got magic hands,” observed CBC hockey commentator Don Cherry following Williams’ third game. The product of the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL was on pace for an 82-goal season after a trio of NHL appearances.
A combination of shoulder and knee injuries limited Williams playing time during his first two seasons with the Marlies, as the forward missed 86 games in that stretch. Also, Williams had trouble gaining the attention of former Leafs general manager John Ferguson, watching four different Marlies forwards get recalled to the Leafs ahead of him. Williams finally got the third recall of his career only after Cliff Fletcher replaced Ferguson as Leafs’ GM, finishing the 2007-08 season with two goals in 18 games.
When reflecting on his mid-season call-up last year, which happened only after players such as Jiri Tlusty, Simon Gamache, Darryl Boyce and Ben Ondrus were summoned ahead of him, Williams showed no resentment. “I wasn’t really playing that well up until Christmas time, and then when I did start to play well, I got rewarded. Sometimes there’s a bunch of factors – sometimes they don’t need the type of player you are, and that’s just the way it goes.”
Fletcher was reluctant to release Williams to the Marlies for their Calder Cup playoff run last spring, for fear of losing the forward on waivers.
In 2008-09, playing on a line with Jason Blake and Dominic Moore has paid huge dividends for Williams as he has found the net 5 times in seven games heading into tonight’s game in Uniondale, New York against the Islanders. “The chances are going in,” smiled Williams. “Our line is working so well together.”
The Leafs bench boss has been quick to identify Williams’ strengths and weaknesses. “He’s got a big-time shot; he shoots the puck as well as anybody on our team,” observed Ron Wilson. “What we’ve talked to him about in the past is winning battles on the boards in our end and playing without the puck. That’s huge.”
Williams has certainly taken his coach’s advice to heart, recognizing his assets but also realizing the areas of his game upon which to improve in order to solidify his place in the Leafs’ lineup. “Playing away from the puck has been the key to my success, which what I didn’t do (during Tuesday’s loss to Dallas), which is why I didn’t get many chances. If you’re working hard and you’re winning those battles, you get chances. But when you’re not, you don’t get any.”
Meanwhile, Williams refuses to use his previous shoulder and knee ailments as excuses for hindering his development as a player. “I don’t think (injuries) ever kept me from being up here. It’s just some things I had to battle through, but I think every injury makes you stronger mentally.”
While Williams has thrived in call-up games, a system of repeatedly sending him down to the Marlies and immediately recalling him would be impractical, given NHL rules that state that he must clear waivers at each turn.
However if the past two-and-a-half weeks are any indication, Williams appears more than able to contribute on the scoresheet, even after the adrenaline of the ‘first game back’ has worn off.
Williams understandably appears loathe to the Leafs-Marlies rotation.
“I’d rather just stay put here, but will see what happens.”
Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, a regular column at TMLfans.ca