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The Mysterious Disappearance of Jason Williams

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Way back in the early history of the Thrashers (OK it was just 2000-2001), Atlanta acquired a skilled forward who had always received 2nd or 3rd line minutes. In Atlanta this forward received first line ice time at even strength and loads of PP minutes. The player worked hard and went on to have the best year of his career finishing up with 34 Goals 45 Assists and 78 Points. After that career year, he cashed in during the summer signing a 3 year $9 million dollar deal with the Dallas Stars. That player was Donald Audette.

The question in my mind is this: Why wasn't Jason Williams "Donald Audette 2.0"? Here you another guy who is looking to make big money as a unrestricted agent during the next summer. You have a guy who was always a secondary offensive player on his previous teams. You have a guy who suddenly has a tremendous opportunity to play loads of PP minutes with a NHL scoring star in Ilya Kovlachuk. Everything seemed in place for the Thrashers to benefit from a salary drive.

During the summer I wrote this on the blog after Williams signed:

"So what do we have here? A player still in the peak section of his career. A guy who has demonstrated above averaging scoring ability, but is not really an elite 1st line scoring threat. A guy who probably will see more even strength ice time here in Atlanta and if he stays healthy could put up new career highs in points.

Overall I give this signing a thumbs up. Every player comes with upside and downside risks. In the case of Williams there appears to be more upside potential than risk of collapse. On the other hand, Williams is not an elite/impact sort of guy, he's more of a 2nd line NHL forward on a playoff team and you can't expect him to push the Thrashers into playoff contention by himself. If expectations are kept in check, he will likely end the season in the "pleasant surprise" category for many fans."

But Jason Williams was anything but a 'pleasant surprise" in his half season in Atlanta. He failed to put up points even at his career rate. Instead he managed just a paltry half a point per game.

2008 - Jason Williams 42 7 11 18 -9 8 4 0 2 0 82 8.5

So what went wrong? I will say that Ilya Kovalchuk can be a challenging guy to play with. He is very quick and fairly unpredictable. Hockey is a mix of improvisation and patterns and Kovalchuk is certainly more at the improvisation end of the spectrum. If you're a player that relies on patterns, Kovalchuk can be very befuddling.

Having said that about Kovalchuk, I don't think you can blame Ilya for Williams poor performance at all. Kovalchuk has been working hard of developing his playmaking skills all season (especially early on) and passing more than ever. He has not been a solo act this year.

Furthermore, if it was just a lack of chemistry with Ilya Kovalchuk, then Jason Williams should have proved useful playing on a different line. But the record show that he was equally bad when he was moved to the 3rd line. But Williams was just bad news no matter where he played.

Every so often I will spend an entire home game writing down play-by-play information on passes. I note the sequence of passes and what happens to end that particular sequence (example: 39->14->141->SOG). In the case of Williams there as a lot of this: "28-17-9-14 LC" where "LC" stands for "lost control" of the puck. Williams had an astonishing number of either direct turnovers (passed directly to the other team) or indirect turnovers (couldn't handle the pass, bobbled the puck and lost control of it) in the games where I tracked this stuff.

When a skill guy consistently fails to catch and maintain control of the puck it makes you wonder what is going under the hood. Is he injured (Kozlov in 2007-2008)? Does he have some off ice distraction? Does he want to be traded?

I can't tell you why Williams wasn't focused on having a career year and turning that year into big piles of dollar bills. But what I can say is that he wasn't here mentally. The Thrashers dealt him EARLY (before the deadline) and they seem to have traded him CHEAP (6th rounder). Those two data points suggest that the Thrashers wanted him off the team and out of that locker room as soon as possible.

Perhaps he was becoming a distraction, perhaps he had some bad off ice habits, perhaps Coach Anderson had simply had enough of his floating. We may never learn the precise motive for this vanishing Jason Williams act. That sad thing is that it didn't have to turn out this way--it should not have turned out this way. Williams should have been one of the better bargains of the 2008-09 season and not one of the busts given away for a end-of-the-draft pick.