A season-ending 6-2 loss to Tampa Bay was emblematic of Carolina’s biggest weakness in the 2010-11 season.
The Hurricanes couldn’t keep the puck out of their own net.
“Not a nice feeling in the stomach,” captain Eric Staal told reporters following the loss. “We obviously worked our butts off all year to have this opportunity at home, and we didn’t get the job done tonight.”
The offense, led by Staal, Eric Cole and Calder Trophy candidate Jeff Skinner, couldn’t do enough to overcome the team’s defensive struggles. Nor could goaltender Cam Ward, who worked his way into the fringes of Vezina discussions with his play down the stretch.
Ward finished the season with 37 wins and .923 save percentage.
Holes in the blueline aren’t hard to identify. Veteran Ian White departed for San Jose before the trade deadline. Young blueliner Derek Joslin was part of the return, but couldn’t occupy a permanent spot on the starting roster.
As a team, the Hurricanes allowed an average of 2.9 goals per game, 21st in a league of 30. The penalty killing unit, too, couldn’t crack the bottom third of the league, placing 20th in the NHL with an 81.3 percent success rate.
The unit figures to undergo significant changes before next year, and likely again the season following. Carolina currently has over 29 million in cap space left to fill before next season, third most in the league as of this publication.
While the Hurricanes are traditionally a budgeted team that does not spend to the cap, they’ll still have plenty of room to make the necessary moves.
To that end, the team has only five forwards and two goaltenders signed for next season as well. With only 11 of 20 starting roster spots filled for next season, the Canes will be among the busiest NHL teams this summer.
Nearly half of the current defense corps will be eligible for free agency on July 1, and no defenseman is currently signed past the 2011-12 season.
This summer, Joni Pitkanen and Jay Harrison will be unrestricted free agents. Joslin will be a restricted free agent.
Of the three, Pitkanen may be the hardest to retain, with a current cap hit of four million per season. Chip Alexander, Hurricanes beat writer for the Raleigh News & Observer, tweeted last week that Pitkanen is likely to enter free agency.
Harrison and Joslin each made a league-minimum 500,000 dollars last season.
Jamie McBain, Joe Corvo, Tim Gleason and Bryan Allen each have one year remaining on their deals. McBain, playing out his entry-level contract, would be the only restricted free agent should each reach the 2012 period of free agency.
The team has tabbed a fourth-line center and legitimate backup goaltender as two of its priorities this offseason, but can’t avoid restructuring its defense as well.
Carolina is a young team, and their 2011 final game exit, while disappointing, put the team ahead of where they expected to be at this point in their rebuilding process. The Hurricanes had the worst record in the Eastern Conference for much of the 2010-11 season, one year after upsetting Boston and New Jersey en route to the 2009 conference finals.
If the Canes wish to continue trending upward and crack the top eight next season, they’ll almost certainly need to acquire a few defensemen from the free agency market.
A look at some potential FA names who would be able to help Carolina get over the hump:
Eric Brewer, 32
Brewer, traded from St. Louis to Tampa Bay at the trade deadline, would be the veteran anchor on this young team. Brewer was a plus-6 this season and has an even rating in the playoffs so far, but is a career minus-106 with a mostly uncompetitive Blues team.
James Wisniewski, 27
Wisniewski, the former Duck, Islander and current Canadien, is a solid presence on a blueline and possesses a mean slap shot. Carolina would do well to have a power play specialist on its first unit, which finished 24th in the league (15.9 percent) despite a wealth of forward talent.
Sami Salo, Andrew Alberts, Christian Erhoff, Kevin Bieksa
Vancouver has four starting defensemen eligible for free agency next season. With just over 13 million in cap space and six forwards also due for free agency, the Canucks won’t be able to resign all four defensemen. Salo, Bieksa and Erhoff each made more than three million this season, and Alberts should be in line for a raise over his current 1.5 million salary. The club would have to dip into its wallet, but has the cap space to take a run at one of these veteran blueliners, each of whom has plenty of postseason experience.