Since he joined the Indy Fuel in October, Chris Williams has been someone who will do whatever the team needs.
It might be dropping the gloves to get the Fuel going – as he did in a recent game when the Fuel fell behind, yelling “let’s go” as he skated to the penalty box to serve his major. He’s done that often, as he ranks fourth among ECHL rookies with seven fighting majors. It might be making a big check or simply retrieving the puck and getting it out of the zone.
And it could be playing a new position, as the rookie defenseman found himself doing this past weekend.
With a surplus of blueliners and a shortage of forwards – the Fuel had eight of the former and nine of the latter active for the most recent weekend – Williams moved from his usual spot at defense to play right wing for the three games this past weekend. He skated as a 10th forward on Friday, scored a goal on Saturday and earned a start the next day – becoming the only Fuel player this season to start a game both on defense and at forward this season.
“He brings a different atmosphere, because he’s got good speed, he always finishes his checks and he’s got a great stick,” Fuel coach Bernie John said of Williams. “His stick is always on the ice, which we try to teach the younger guys.
“Defensively, he’s always in the shooting lane. He’s a guy who likes to sacrifice and likes blocking shots. He likes to get in on the forecheck, he gets in there hard, he always finishes, he likes to muck it up with everybody. That’s a key to have a guy like that. He’s very versatile. With all the callups,with all the injuries, you get opportunities.”
The rookie defenseman scored the game-winning goal in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Tulsa.It was his second goal of the season – eclipsing his total from his four-year college career at Alaska-Anchorage.
He scored it by using his size and speed to start the cycle by separating the puck from the Oilers’ defenseman on the forecheck. He then took up residence on top of the crease, redirecting a centering pass into the net.
“That’s what the coaches are asking me to do,” Williams said of his stint at forward. “Keep it simple, go hard to the net, use my size, create some havoc and make it hard on the other team’s defenseman and get my body in front of the net.”
“He works so hard out there,” said forward Josh Shalla, who assisted on Williams’ Saturday goal. “He hits, he creates so much more time and space for us. He’s first to pucks. It’s good to see him get rewarded like that.”
He said the biggest adjustment from moving from defense to forward for a few games is there’s a lot more skating. While a defenseman often directs the attack from the blueline, forwards are playing a 200-foot game.
“The biggest thing is the cardio. Forwards, you have to skate the full 200 feet. Defensemen, you take a couple of strides and play up. You never really have to sprint full-speed unless you’re getting beat and you’re in trouble,” Williams said. “At forward, you have to sprint full-speed in the offensive zone, sprint full-speed on the backcheck.
“You have to have your head on a swivel. With D, everything is in front of you on the ice. At forward, there’s guys in front of you, beside you, right next to you. There are couple of things you have to be aware of, but I have fun doing it, playing full-speed and creating some havoc.”
While adjusting to a new position for a few games has been one aspect of the bearded blueliner’s game, simply adjusting to pro hockey is another. He turned pro and played 12 games at the end of the 2015-16 season with the Norfolk Admirals. After being traded to the Fuel, the Pennsylvania native has been a mainstay in the lineup. He has two goals and five points in 30 games, and has a plus-2 rating.
But because of the numerous responsibilities, especially in the neutral and defensive zones, the defense position at a new level brings with it a long learning curve. It often takes a year or two at a new level to truly master the position. He credits the Fuel coaches – John, himself a standout defenseman as a pro – and assistant Jan Jas, in helping his development.
“Just when you think you’re having a few good games in a row, you get a wake-up call,” Williams said. “You’re learning every day, every week, especially on the back end. It’s a big adjustment for a defenseman to move from junior hockey to college to pro hockey. The skill level is a lot higher, guys make quick plays with the puck. If you take one step out of position, you’re getting beat for a goal. Bernie and Jan do a great job talking to me and telling me to keep it simple and helping me stay positive.”
Whether he’s on the blueline or up front, Williams is looking forward to the opportunity to contribute to the Fuel attack as they begin the second half of the season with six consecutive home games – beginning with Friday’s contest against the Toledo Walleye at 7:35 p.m. at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum.