When the Carolina Hurricanes got knocked out of the 2019 playoffs, the sting wasn’t all that harsh. The Canes had gone a decade between postseason appearances, made a big leap forward with a gang of charismatic youngsters who created viral videos after every home win, won a nail-biter series with the defending champion Capitals and then pummeled the Islanders before finally getting overwhelmed by Boston in the conference final. It was the best season that Carolina had enjoyed since their now-coach, Rod Brind’Amour, had laced up his skates in Raleigh, and it definitively marked a bright new era for this franchise.
When the Hurricanes got knocked out of the 2020 playoffs, it felt a little worse. Their regular season was equally solid until the pandemic happened. But though they breezed through the qualifying round in the bubble against the Rangers, they only managed one win in the first round against their nemeses the Bruins, whose veteran talent again pressed them into submission. Still, those playoffs were the weirdest and least fun that they’ve ever been and hopefully ever will be, and to judge the Canes for losing a series in such surreal conditions after such a long time away from each other wouldn’t have been fair or realistic. And anyway, this team was just overflowing with potential and optimism for the future.
But when the Hurricanes got knocked out of the 2021 playoffs in Game 5 against Tampa Bay on Wednesday evening, it qualified as a legitimate disappointment. The Canes finished tops in the Central, their first division title since their Cup-winning 2006. They had stumbled upon a dramatic upgrade at goalie in Alex Nedeljkovic. They improved their standing on both the goals for and goals against leaderboards. And they survived a hot Nashville goalie and plenty of extra hockey to advance past Round One.
But though the Canes played the reigning-champ Lightning close in every game, they couldn’t quite keep up with Tampa’s all-around brilliance. Andrei Vasilevskiy was an unsolvable puzzle in all but a wasted second period Game 4 flurry. The Lightning power play was a frickin’ monster. And, finally, Tampa was as healthy as it’d been in years. That the Hurricanes even got the one seed in this section of the bracket feels a bit lucky in retrospect, given how this now-full-strength Tampa group has undeniably asserted themselves as the superior squad against both Carolina and the Florida Panthers.
But even with all the compliments I can give them, the Lightning, like the Bruins before them, are the kind of team that the Hurricanes have to beat if they’re ever going to be legit contenders. After three seasons of good hockey that transformed this franchise from forgotten and disrespected to feared and loved, and with what’s poised to be plenty of roster changes in the summer, it’s worth stopping and wondering exactly how high the Canes’ ceiling can be as they enter 2021–22 bearing the highest expectations that this team has earned in a generation.
“We had, in our minds, something different than this,” Sebastian Aho said in the postgame. “I thought we were ready to take the next step. The next step is to be the best, right?”
This is going to be an extremely busy offseason for Canes GM Don Waddell—only Detroit and Arizona have fewer players currently under contract for next season. Some of the decisions facing him are no-brainers—pending RFA Andrei Svechnikov deserves anything he asks for, and $3.4-million goalie James Reimer can be waved goodbye to in order to give Nedeljkovic a big raise. But not every question is so easy. Two-way defenseman Dougie Hamilton, though he has some detractors around the league, grades out as the most valuable Hurricane by point shares all year, and he might be the most coveted UFA hitting the market this summer. He’s politely said that he wants to stay in town, but they’re reportedly pretty far away on money still. I don’t know, will Carolina really be able to give Hamilton the best all-around pitch when he can entertain offers from probably half the league? If they can’t, the blue-line downgrade could be nothing short of devastating.
There’s a lot to sort through on the forward lines, too. Svechnikov aside, their top six scorers (plus Teuvo Teravainen, who was on the shelf for much of the year), are all locked in for at least one more season, and in the case of Teuvo and Aho and the top defensemen who aren’t named Dougie, their deals last for much longer. But it’s the depth skaters that could see a ton of shake-ups between now and next Fall. The hard-working fan favorite Brock McGinn is the highest priority in this tier, but would someone else be willing to overpay for him on the open market? And does signing McGinn necessarily mean letting Jordan Martinook go? How does that affect the balance of the locker room? And that’s before you even think about how they’ll lose a guy in the Seattle expansion draft.
It’s these choices—the ones that won’t necessarily make big headlines—where Waddell will really earn his pay. Generally speaking, it’s not especially difficult to give a superstar-level contract to superstars, especially with the way hockey is slanted against young players moving teams. But which of these seemingly interchangeable $2- or $3-million-a-year guys could make the difference between a second-round exit and Stanley Cup glory? The Hurricanes are pretty much locked into their young core, and what an enviable young core that is. But, particularly if they can somehow hang on to Hamilton, who will be their Blake Coleman? Their Lars Eller? That secondary guy who does just enough at just the right time to keep the team alive in its biggest games? We might find out. But only if this team makes good on its potential.