On May 16, 2019, the Carolina Hurricanes got swept out of the Eastern Conference Final by the Boston Bruins, ending a season unlike any other in the history of the franchise in Raleigh that ended a nine-season playoff drought.
“Not being there, to know how hard it is, it takes that little bit extra,” then-rookie head coach Rod Brind’Amour said of their unceremonious exit at the hands of the Bruins. “We found out how hard it is. We played a team that knows it, and they said, ‘thank you very much.’ Everyone has to be that much better.”
754 days, two playoff runs, and one world-changing pandemic later, the Hurricanes are in that same position - looking for answers. How do they reach the next level?
“When we started this three years ago, it was to get relevant and expect to win - and we do now,” said Brind’Amour on Tuesday night. “And to be proud of what we’re doing, and I think we’ve done that. There’s that next step that we have to find... You learn that you have to be that much better.”
While many things about this Hurricanes team have changed over the last three years, their quest to be “that much better” remains the same.
After back-to-back five-game exits against two consensus top-dogs in the Eastern Conference, Carolina’s front office enters a regime-defining offseason that will, in many ways, dictate just how good this core of players will be.
The age of “happy to be here” is over. It’s winning time for the Hurricanes.
The big in-house decisions start in two places. Rod Brind’Amour and Dougie Hamilton.
It’s been all but assumed that the Hurricanes will re-sign Brind’Amour, but the longer this deal doesn’t get announced, the longer questions will be asked about the Jack Adams Trophy frontrunner.
Say what you will about the perceived “underachieving” of this year’s team (a sentiment that I don’t necessarily agree with). There’s no arguing who should be the coach of this team and who, almost certainly, will be the coach of this team.
The conversation is much, much tougher for Hamilton.
A couple of months ago, TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported that the defenseman’s representatives used Alex Pietrangelo’s contract (seven years, $8.8 million AAV) as a starting point in negotiations with the team. The Hurricanes countered with Torey Krug’s contract (six years, $6.5 million AAV), and, predictably, those talks were shelved for the remainder of the season.
Well, the season is over now, and Hamilton may have played his final game with the Hurricanes. His lackluster postseason performance likely hammered home that he won’t be getting north of $8 million AAV from Carolina.
That being said, Hamilton unquestionably makes the Hurricanes a better team, especially in the regular season. Since the beginning of the 2019 calendar year, he has 39 goals and 111 points in 146 regular-season games. Over the last two regular seasons, he has 24 goals and 82 points in 102 games.
His oft-discussed and occasionally overblown defensive issues are the biggest concerns, and they were certainly on display in the first half of the season. To what may be a surprise to some, his defensive metrics improved drastically in the second half of the year, and he finished much closer to his 2019-20 numbers than his poor 2018-19 numbers. Near the midway point, he was on pace to regress to those ‘18-19 numbers.
While the Hurricanes are desperately searching for answers on reaching the next level in the postseason, they mustn’t overlook the regular season.
You can’t win a Stanley Cup if you don’t set yourself up with regular-season success. The team took an important step forward this season in being a top-seeded team, but next season they’ll go back to a Metropolitan Division that should offer much more depth of competition than the top-heavy Central Division. Hamilton has been one of the best regular-season defensemen in hockey for years and is in the elite-of-the-elite tier of offensive defensemen.
If the numbers come down to the Krug range, he’s clearly worth it. However, if they stay in the Pietrangelo range, they’ll likely try to look elsewhere for a top-four defenseman who can produce offense near Dougie’s level, because as it stands, this team has precisely zero defensemen who can replicate the offense he generates at five-on-five and on the power play.
Their only longshot hope was Jake Bean, but after a strong start, he became nearly unplayable in the postseason and saw just 6:41 of ice time in game five against the Lightning.
Maybe he gets better in year two. Or maybe the pending RFA isn’t even on the team in a couple of months due to the expansion draft or a trade. Either way, he simply wasn’t good enough to be relied upon in that capacity for a team that is looking to get “that much better.”
Brock McGinn, Jordan Martinook, and Cedric Paquette are all depth players scheduled to hit the UFA market. Warren Foegele is of a similar ilk and is an RFA with arbitration rights.
You can’t justify bringing back all of these players, especially when one of the biggest hurdles for the Canes in the postseason was scoring, particularly on Andrei Vasilevskiy. Money invested into depth players quickly starts to add up. The development of Steven Lorentz, who has another year left on his low-money two-way deal, likely makes at least one of them expendable in the offseason.
Foegele’s arbitration rights make his situation dicey. What kind of money is he worth? Has he already maxed out what he can be in this league?
McGinn had a great year and was an elite five-on-five defensive forward. He’s a great penalty killer, his on-ice finishing numbers went up, and he is everything you want out of a bottom-six player. Martinook experienced serious regression at five-on-five. He remains a good penalty killer, but he has never regained his 2018-19 form, likely due in part to injuries.
These are decisions that, while not as impactful as Hamilton, have real ramifications on how you build your team. Can the money that they’d have to spend on one or two of those players be better spent on additional scoring options? They are in need of more guys who have game-breaking talent - higher-end players who are tough to come by and would likely necessitate a trade. Perhaps that money can also be put towards a Hamilton contract or, of course, Andrei Svechnikov.
Instead of taking the next step in becoming a star player, Svechnikov took a concerning step in the wrong direction with his defense. That was magnified by inconsistent finishing by both him and his linemates at times in the season. That could play into what kind of deal he gets as a first-time RFA, but it doesn’t change what kind of player he projects to be - a really good one.
Do they have their goalie of the future in Alex Nedeljkovic? It certainly seems like they do, but they’d be foolish not to invest in a quality 1B to give him help. Will that lead to a return for Petr Mrazek, or do they go outside of the organization to find that?
Like Foegele, Nedeljkovic has arbitration rights. He’s a Calder finalist, and he will start taking up a more significant portion of this team’s salary cap, though it should be offset by the likely departure of at least one of Mrazek or James Reimer.
Beyond the regulars, the development of 2020 first-round pick Seth Jarvis should be kept a close eye on. He started the year in the AHL due to the WHL’s delayed start, and he looked like anything but an underage player in that league. He’s probably a good deal closer to being a lineup candidate than most people expected, but he still might be a year away.
As the sting of a disappointing ending to the 2021 season starts to wear off in the coming days and weeks, the reality of what is a massive offseason will start to set in.
Another reality is that the core of this hockey team is legitimately good. Sebastian Aho has again shown that he is the real deal as a star player in this league and can rise to the occasion in the postseason. He wants the Hurricanes to be a winner as much as anyone. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce remain as cornerstones on the blue line. The cast of Svechnikov, Teuvo Teravainen, Vincent Trocheck, Jordan Staal, Nino Niederreiter and Martin Necas, among others, instill plenty of confidence in the direction of this team.
The Hurricanes are not where they want to be right now, but this is the process that almost every young team with high aspirations goes through. You don’t turn into a champion overnight. These things take time, and along the way, there are key moments that determine whether you’ll be one of the few teams that can break through; or one of the many teams that can just never get over the most difficult hurdle - going from good to great.
That moment starts now for the Carolina Hurricanes.