RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes enter the off-season confident of one thing: They shouldn’t have to wait another decade to return to the playoffs.
No More Decade-Long Playoff Absences
They hope their nucleus will make post-season appearances an every-year thing.
The Hurricanes made their first playoff berth since 2009 last much longer than most expected, advancing to the Eastern Conference final before they were swept by the Boston Bruins.
After getting a taste of post-season hockey, this largely young team wants to do it again.
“I think we all know now what it takes first of all to get to the playoffs, and to go through those tough series,” forward Sebastian Aho said Monday. “Now we’re even more hungry.”
There’s reason to believe this group has staying power.
The entire defensive corps — including young stars Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce — is under team control for next season, with six of them signed and Haydn Fleury a pending restricted free agent.
Key winger Teuvo Teravainen is locked up through 2023-24. Promising forward Andrei Svechnikov oozed with promise during his rookie season. Aho, who also will be a restricted free agent, looks to be a candidate to receive a long-term deal. He declined to discuss his contract status.
This core was responsible for turning the franchise around and bringing entertainment — both during and after games — to the rink.
They brought back those beloved Hartford Whalers uniforms for a couple of games. They broke out the “Storm Surge” celebrations, those choreographed on-ice parties after regular-season victories at home. They wore the jabs from curmudgeonly commentator Don Cherry as badges of honour — plastering his “Bunch of Jerks” insult onto T-shirts that sold for $32 at the team shop. They welcomed a live pig named Hamilton into the building for home playoff games.
And, of course, they played winning hockey — especially after the calendar flipped to January. Their record of 31-12-2 was third-best in the league and propelled them from last place in the division to the top wild-card berth.
“As the year went on, as the record shows, it was a lot of good results, and coming to the rink was a lot of fun,” defenceman Trevor van Riemsdyk said.
A few things to watch entering the off-season:
The Captain’s Future
The big question is whether 37-year-old Justin Williams will return for a second season as team captain with his two-year contract expiring this off-season. The three-time Stanley Cup winner known around the league as “Mr. Game 7” for his exploits in those final games brought credibility and leadership to the dressing room and helped steer the young team’s midseason turnaround. “I put everything I had into it this year, and if I have everything again, then I’ll be here,” Williams said. “I haven’t gotten that far yet.”
The Hurricanes have some decisions to make with both goalies — Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney — facing free agency. Mrazek accepted a one-year, $1.5 million deal last off-season to prove he’s worthy of a starter’s job, and the team snatched the 35-year-old McElhinney off the waiver wire when Scott Darling was hurt. They both played well enough to make Darling an afterthought, and now the question is whether either or both will wind up sticking around.
The only other unrestricted free agents on the roster are forwards Micheal Ferland and Greg McKegg. Ferland provided a strong physical presence on the ice, but he didn’t score any goals after February and had a single assist in the playoffs. The Hurricanes should have some money to spend when July 1 rolls around. According to salary tracking website CapFriendly.com, Carolina had the most room under the salary cap ($16.2 million) of any team in the league.
Special Teams Fix
Carolina has plenty of work to do on its power play, which led to the team’s undoing against Boston. The Hurricanes scored on less than 10% of their post-season chances with the man advantage — the worst rate of any team that reached the second round — and went stretches of 24 and 13 consecutive power plays without scoring. During the regular season, they scored on nearly 18% of their chances to rank 20th in the league.
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Joedy McCreary, The Associated Press