There they were, rocking you like a Hurricane.
But alas, Carolina – a charter member of the Wild Card Chaos Squad – has now been eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs, swept into the gentle night by the Boston Bruins.
The end of Carolina’s run was not exciting. A gutter-low power play and the inability to stop Boston’s offense when the Bruins were up a man was certainly a big factor, but overall the B’s just had more smarts, experience and high-end talent than the Hurricanes. And a better goaltender. And more discipline.
But what does the future hold for Carolina? If history is any indicator, it would be another fallow period, followed by a stunningly deep playoff run – after all, that has been the trend since the franchise moved from Hartford in 1997 (in the past 17 seasons, the Canes won a Cup, lost a Cup, made two conference finals and otherwise missed the post-season altogether 13 times).
Given that the Hurricanes only cleared the playoff entry bar by three points this year, it would not be surprising to see them fall back out of the race in 2019-20, but let’s look at the state of the team and see where they’re at.
In terms of potential losses, the big names are Micheal Ferland and Justin Williams. Ferland, whose power forward profile will allow him to command a hefty raise from his current $1.7 million stipend as an unrestricted free agent, is the most likely to bolt. With Williams being the captain and leader of the Storm Surge, he seems way more likely to re-sign with the Hurricanes.
The other two notable UFAs are goaltenders Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney. While Scott Darling is officially still under contract for another two years, it’s near impossible seeing him in the Carolina net again for anything other than the most dire circumstances.
In terms of a farm replacement, the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers have leaned on 5-foot-11 Alex Nedeljkovic in the playoffs and that has gone very well: the Checkers have lost only one game so far, heading into the Eastern Conference final against the Toronto Marlies. But would they entrust him with a full-time NHL job next season? Certainly not as a starter, so GM Don Waddell will have to go shopping – unless he is happy to go with a Mrazek/McElhinney battery again, which wouldn’t be bad. If he does hit the open market, there are some intriguing names out there (Semyon Varlamov, Robin Lehner, Cam Talbot), but competition will be fierce (especially for Lehner, who seems like a perfect candidate to re-sign with the New York Islanders).
On defense, the Hurricanes are set. The fact fans of other teams are always trying to swing trades for Jaccob Slavin should be a pretty good indicator of that. Everyone is signed and Trevor van Riemsdyk may miss the beginning of the season due to shoulder surgery, but the silver lining would be for youngsters Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean to make a push for roster spots. That needs to happen anyway: the clock is ticking on both first-round draft picks.
Up front, we can expect growth from Andrei Svechnikov and perhaps a little more from Sebastian Aho, who is coming off his breakout 83-point season with the franchise. Was Aho a little too passive against the Bruins? For sure. But it’s a good lesson to learn. Having fellow center Jordan Staal healthy for an entire year will also be great for both Aho and the team at large. It’s also worth noting that winger Nino Niederreiter had 30 points in 36 games after being acquired mid-season from the Minnesota Wild. Extrapolate that over a full 82-game slate and you’ve got another boost to the offense, which was just middling in 2018-19. I also see Warren Foegele making a big leap next year.
As for any new faces, I don’t see any guarantees. Martin Necas and Julien Gauthier would have to really impress in training camp, based off current results with the Checkers, while Morgan Geekie might be a dark horse to make noise. I like Stelio Mattheos as another under-the-radar guy, but his pro career just began in the AHL playoffs, so he has time.
Can the Hurricanes make it back to the post-season next year? Yes, though a lot will depend on goaltending. And they’ll have to do it without sneaking up on opponents again, making the road all the more difficult.