RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes must balance two offseason questions following a return to the Eastern Conference Final.
Was the season-ending sweep due to key injuries catching up to them? Or is this an indication of still-pressing needs to fill before being able to win a Stanley Cup?
“We’ve talked a lot about it — we really like our team,” team president and general manager Don Waddell said Wednesday, adding: “We don’t have a lot of holes, but we have some areas we’d like to address if possible.”
The most obvious remains bolstering their goal-scoring punch. But the Hurricanes are projected to have about $24 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly, and have been active in the trade market before as they were with last summer’s acquisition of top-pairing defenseman Brent Burns.
“I still think the trade route is something we’re going to explore very heavily before free agency,” Waddell said. “We’re in the same spot this year where we do have cap space to work with and there’s a lot of teams that are in cap jail. So we’ll make sure we talk to all the teams and see what’s potentially out there.”
The Hurricanes have accomplished the goal of building a sustained winner, ending a nine-year postseason drought with five straight playoff appearances and the last three with division titles. This year they had the league’s second-best record.
Carolina did it despite injuries limiting trade acquisition Max Pacioretty — acquired last summer to address an exposed need for postseason scoring depth — to just five games, followed by losing top-line forward Andrei Svechnikov to a season-ending knee injury after the trade deadline.
Carolina rode a collective scoring approach to its first Eastern Conference Final since starting the current five-year postseason run in 2019. But in the NHL semifinals against Florida, the Hurricanes struggled to beat a hot goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky and find their own clutch-scoring match to Matthew Tkachuk.
That sent Carolina to an odd result of being swept in a tightly contested series, which included a four-overtime opener that ranked as the sixth-longest game in NHL history. The series had four one-goal margins, five extra periods and only 2:40 of action with a team up more than one goal.
The Hurricanes finished with a 47-shot advantage along with more scoring chances (153-136) and high-danger scoring chances (75-69), according to Natural Stat Trick. Ultimately, only one stat mattered: Florida’s 10-6 edge in goals.
It’s why coach Rod Brind’Amour said he looks at it as “one bad week” in a memorable season that included a sellout for Carolina’s first Stadium Series outdoor game in February.
“I feel like every couple of hours I’m trying to figure out how that happened or what we could’ve done differently,” forward Jordan Martinook said Friday. “I don’t know, this one’s going to stick around for a while.”
Jordan Staal has captained the Hurricanes for the past four seasons but wrapped up a 10-year, $60 million extension and is an unrestricted free agent. He’ll turn 35 before next season and said last week he wants to return.
Goaltenders Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta are unrestricted free agents after sharing most of the regular-season load.
Carolina has brought along 2019 second-round draft pick Pyotr Kochetkov, who started 23 games this year and a 2022 playoff game. The team signed Kochetkov to an extension last fall for an average-annual value of $2 million through 2026-27, setting him up for a larger role depending on Carolina’s other moves there.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
Forward Jesper Fast is the other key name among Carolina’s unrestricted free agents. He is a good fit in Brind’Amour’s system but his six-goal postseason could prove attractive to potential suitors. Others include forwards Paul Stastny, Derek Stepan and Mackenzie MacEachern; and defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere.
The coming year is important to Carolina’s ability to maintain its core.
Top performers like center Sebastian Aho, forward Teuvo Teravainen, and defensemen Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei are entering their final years before becoming unrestricted free agents. In addition, young forwards Seth Jarvis and Martin Necas are a year from becoming restricted free agents, allowing Carolina to match any offer sheet signed with another team.
NHL rules allow for teams to negotiate extensions in the final year of a contract.