Let's get right to the argument, shall we? There are two major points:
The signing makes good short-term sense.
I don't love Jason Williams, and I wasn't particularly sad to see him go. But, he isn't a bad player by any stretch of the imagination. Last year he put up 29 points in 39 games with Columbus (after a rough patch with Atlanta) and the year before that he had 36 points in 43 games for Chicago. Offensively, he was one of the best players left on the market.
Williams also returns to the Red Wings with valuable experience as a first-line forward during his time with the Blackhawks, Thrashers and Blue Jackets. Of course, there are no plans to use Williams in that capacity--he's looking to be solidly anchored to the third line. But, injuries can and will happen, and when they do the Red Wings will need players to step up. Williams will probably get around 11 minutes a night when the Wings are at full strength, but if a guy like Franzen, Cleary or Zetterberg goes down, Mike Babcock knows that Williams is capable of handling more ice time. He's also able to play center, which is more than can be said for Taylor Pyatt, Todd Bertuzzi or Mike Greer.
Speaking of Pyatt, I'm not as sold on him as some of my fellow Wings fans. He's got good size and seems to be relatively smart defensively, but I'm not convinced he has the hands or the smarts to really thrive in the Red Wings' system, or to be enough of an offensive threat on the third line.
And considering the other options, did Detroit really have a much better choice? I'm not so sure. Grier and Malhotra might make good fourth-liners, but lacked the offense Detroit needed. Bertuzzi, at this stage in his career, isn't any better offensively than Williams, plus he's not as disciplined (74 PIM versus Williams' 24) and brings much more baggage. Sykora, Comrie and Prospal might have been nice additions, but all might have been asking too much, considering what they made last year ($2.5 million, $4 million and $3.5 million, respectively). Plus, Williams already knows the system and seems willing to accept a lesser role than he's played in the last few years.
Money-wise, $1.5 million for Jason Williams is not a bad deal. Considering what Samuelsson got in Vancouver ($2.5 million per year after a 40-point campaign) and what Hudler was awarded in arbitration, the Williams contract is actually at good value. It's actually a pay cut of $700,000 from the $2.2 million he made last season.
With the signing, the Red Wings have a 22-man roster (12 forwards, including Williams and Eaves but not Abdelkader; 8 defensemen including Lilja, Lebda and Meech; 2 goalies) signed at a cap hit of $56,270,655. If nothing else changes, Detroit with $529,345 in extra cap space, which would allow the Red Wings to add a contract with a cap value of somewhere around $2 million to $2.5 million near the trade deadline. Those numbers would increase if Lilja winds up on LTIR.
It bolsters Detroit's reputation for loyalty to its players.
In the era of free agency, frequent roster turnover is commonplace. So, it's quite unusual that seven current Red Wings--over a third of the starting lineup--have been in the system for more than ten years: Lidstrom (drafted 1989), Draper (traded 1993), Holmstrom (drafted 1994), Maltby (traded 1996), Datsyuk (drafted 1998), Zetterberg (drafted 1999) and Osgood (in two stints, from 1992-2001 and 2005-present). That doesn't even count two others released just this offseason: Chris Chelios (acquired in 1999) and Darren McCarty. Looking at the rest of the current roster, a good chunk is likely to follow--Kronwall, Filppula and Franzen are probably locks, and several others could join them.
Over the years, Ken Holland reacquired plenty of old players back into the fold, after they left the team by about every possible means--trade (Drake, Williams), waivers (Osgood, Doug Brown), buyout (McCarty), free agency (Larionov), even retirement (Hasek).
Yes, there has been the occasional, somewhat messy divorce--Krupp, Hatcher, Robitaille and Joseph, to name a few. And yes, I can understand the frustration of other Red Wings fans when it appears that Holland is passing up opportunities to improve the team by reacquiring or retaining lesser players, on the basis of loyalty, instead of acquiring ostensibly better players.
And yet, I like the overall standard that Holland and the Red Wings brass have set: if players are loyal and dedicate themselves to the team, then the team will show loyalty and dedication to its players.
That policy is why a pair of fourth-liners (Draper and Maltby) will definitely end their careers here, no matter how much their play might deteriorate. It's why a reserve defenseman in his mid-forties (Chelios) was continually offered one-year contracts and was allowed to stay with the team for at least two years after, based on production and team development alone, he should have been cut loose.
And while, in the short term, it might not have made sense to, say, keep Chelios around at the expense of a younger player, the policy of loyalty is one that makes a lot of long-term sense, and one that has a lot more advantages than drawbacks. It's why so many players want to play here, and why so many are willing to take less money to stay here. It's why, in 2001, four of the greatest players of all time--Yzerman, Shanahan, Lidstrom and Chelios--agreed to defer salary so that the Wings could sign Brett Hull.
You might say that consistent success had a lot to do with it, too, but I'd say that's a chicken-and-egg argument: did the Red Wings' success create the culture of loyalty and stability, or did the Red Wings' culture of loyalty and stability allow such consistent success to take place? Both help each other, but considering the number of great teams that have risen and subsequently fallen apart over the last decade and a half, I'd be more inclined to side with the latter.
So, while in the short term I can say that another player (Comrie?) might have been a slightly better pickup, I'm also aware that signings like Williams'--another example of the Red Wings' front office sticking with its players, past and present--is good for Detroit's long-term strategy.