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We’ve Got A Category 5 Spendicane Incoming

The Panthers celebrate while Jordan Staal looks on
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Even in the aftermath of a conference final sweep, it's not hard to find nice things to say about the Carolina Hurricanes. They continued head coach Rod Brind'Amour's era of consistent regular-season success, winning their third straight division and making the playoffs for the fifth consecutive time after a decade spent completely outside the postseason. They played sound 200-foot hockey, averaging the third-most shots per game of any NHL team and the fewest shots against. They took a step closer to the Cup than they had the last few tries. And even though the Panthers faced no real adversity in defeating them so quickly, each of the series's four games stayed extremely competitive from beginning to end. Carolina's most meaningful takeaway might just be, "God, it'd be nice to have Matthew Tkachuk on our side."

“That’s the unfortunate part of this, [people are] going to look back and everyone’s going to say, ‘You got swept,'” Brind’Amour said after Game 4. “That’s not what happened. I watched the game. I’m there. I’m cutting the game [film]. We’re in the game. We didn’t lose four games. We got beat, but we were right there, and this could have went the other way. It could have been four games the other way.”

The Canes deserve to be sanguine after another solid run. But telling them to stay the course, because they'll get there eventually, isn't that simple; there's no telling what this team will look like a year from now. Despite such a steady display over the last five years, Carolina has basically no one signed to long-term commitments. Both this summer and next will be filled with a massive number of personnel decisions that will ultimately determine the future course of the franchise.

The fun part is that the Hurricanes have a ton of cap room to play with now that their season is over. They're 28th out of 32 NHL teams in payroll obligations next year, and while the open market this time around doesn't exactly look like California in 1849, it's a no-brainer that a team that looked a little too thin at forward as the playoffs wore on should try for a high-upside scorer like Tyler Bertuzzi or Michael Bunting, or premium veteran help like Ryan O’Reilly or Vlad Tarasenko. That $7 million coming off the team's cap this summer went to Max Pacioretty, who played just five games in this very unfortunate season, and that their second-highest paid player, young winger Andrei Svechnikov, had to miss the entirety of the playoffs, are both signs that this squad still has plenty of room to grow.

But the flip side of having money to spend is the difficulty of managing roster turnover. The captain, Jordan Staal, has reached the end of a 10-year, $60 million contract he signed in some dark days for the team, and the two goalies who won games for them in the playoffs, Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta, are also both free to go. Even more worryingly, there are critical pieces calling out for long-term extensions, particularly top center Sebastian Aho and sparkplug scorer Marty Nečas. This pair accounted for nearly a quarter of all Carolina goals this season, and both have just a year left on their current agreements, with Nečas going to restricted free agency and Aho potentially becoming a grand prize for another team in 2024.

The easiest and most intuitive thing for the Hurricanes to do would be to run back this season as closely as possible, only healthier and without Sergei Bobrovsky choking the life out of them through a billion overtimes. But while teams like Vegas and Edmonton are mostly stuck with their stars, GM Don Waddell doesn't have the luxury of following a familiar, safe blueprint. He has freedom, which is neat, but with that gift comes the pressure of making decisions—who to keep, what to pay them and for how long, where to add, and how much to bet on inexperienced goalie heir Pyotr Kochetkov. Since taking over in 2018, Waddell's done a fine job building a sturdy house that has so far weathered losses like Vincent Trocheck and Dougie Hamilton. But glory in the NHL often arrives only after many seasons of persistence, and the longer he wants to stay a contender, the harder it's going to get.

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