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Burnside: A Reflection On The Season That Was & Looking Toward The Future

Comparisons to a divisional foe, what went wrong and providing an assessment each positional group

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / Hurricanes.com

RALEIGH, NC. - Before we start to unpack this most maddening of Carolina Hurricanes seasons and all the many emotions fans endured from an epic start to the season on through the gut-wrenching 6-2 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the second round, we'll start here.

Not long after the Washington Capitals were once again vanquished by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, my pal Pierre LeBrun and I were in Buffalo for the draft combine and we happened on Washington GM Brian MacLellan.

The three of us sat, had a beer, and shot the breeze about all kinds of hockey stuff. But what sticks out even now was that even though his team had been eliminated some weeks before, time had done little to blunt the disappointment of that playoff loss for MacLellan.

The Caps had been knocking on the door for a number of years at that point. They had been built seemingly for the playoffs. They seemed on every level ready to take that next step. And it turned out not to be the case. MacLellan seemed to me to be equal parts disconsolate and puzzled.

How could this have happened and more to the point, what now?

I thought of that chance meeting in Buffalo and MacLellan's feelings of despair after watching the Hurricanes slowly leave the PNC Arena ice after being dispatched by the Rangers. It was the team's first home-ice loss of the playoffs. They had been outscored 11-4 after taking a 3-2 series lead.

This will sting. As it should.

 

How long it will sting, well, that's the million-dollar question, no?

One year after we ran into MacLellan in Buffalo he was riding the Stanley Cup wave after the Caps knocked off Vegas in Game 5 of the final in Vegas in June of '18. It was the mother of all Stanley Cup celebrations.

MacLellan couldn't have known that was going to happen in that downtown lobby bar in Buffalo, and in fact, he might have wondered just the opposite. But it did happen.

No doubt Carolina GM Don Waddell, the entire hockey ops staff, head coach Rod Brind'Amour, and his coaching staff will be feeling pretty discouraged as they try and decipher what transpired through two rounds of playoff hockey that in many ways bore little resemblance to the manner in which the team played during the regular season.

The Hurricanes went from being a team that for long stretches of time during the regular season was arguably the best team in hockey, to a team in the playoffs that never quite found that level of play at least on a consistent enough level. It is a testament to how well this team is built that in spite of failing to address issues with too many penalties, the absence of starting netminder Frederik Andersen out with an MCL tear, a catatonic power play, and difficulty in finding timely scoring the Hurricanes were one win from the final four. One win.

That should help keep things in perspective for Waddell and Brind'Amour as they consider the next steps. And the truth of the matter is that process is already underway.

Change is not only inevitable, but it is also necessary, especially when you're a team with the expectations this team has for success. But it's the nature of those changes that will provide the real challenge for Waddell and the hockey ops department and Brind'Amour and his coaching staff.

 

 

MacLellan spent the 2017 off-season delicately pruning the Caps roster tree.

The core of the Caps returned from the disappointing 2017 playoff run: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Braden Holtby (although he would lose his starting job during the 2017-18 season), Tom Wilson and Lars Eller. But there were significant changes that helped pave the way to that first-ever Washington Stanley Cup. Not just significant, but difficult changes.

Former Carolina captain Justin Williams returned to Raleigh for that 2017-18 season after two seasons as a Cap. Kevin Shattenkirk, acquired at the '17 deadline from St. Louis, signed with the New York Rangers. Long-time Washington defender Karl Alzner signed in Montreal. Marcus Johansson, another long-time member of the franchise, was in New Jersey.

In their place Michal Kempny played a significant role after being acquired at the '18 deadline, partnering with John Carlson on the team's top defensive pairing. Devante Smith-Pelley came on board and played an important depth forward role.

But in the end, it was the veteran core of that Caps team, the players who had been through the hellfire of losing to Pittsburgh almost annually while the Penguins won Cups in 2009, 2016, and 2017, that pushed the team over the line.

Are there lessons to be learned from that experience by the Hurricanes?

There are lessons that can and should be learned from every playoff experience. For us, the critical element is the balance that will be required in putting the 2022-23 Hurricanes roster together.

 

 

Waddell and Brind'Amour met with the media on Thursday. The GM promised there were lots of meetings planned for the coming days and weeks.

The team's brain trust will have to distance itself from the disappointment of blowing a 2-0 series lead against the Rangers, scoring just 13 times, and balance the issue of which pieces of this roster can the team live without and what pieces have a strong potential for growth rising out of disappointment like this playoff season represents?

Specifically, the team needs to establish which players can continue to grow within the strong, positive identity established by this team and which players have struggled to do so and may not be expected to thrive moving forward.

Of course, these potentially difficult decisions are all juxtaposed against the salary cap and future contract needs.

Owner Tom Dundon is committed to spend to the cap as this team remains in the 'anything is possible' phase, having qualified for four straight playoff tournaments.

But no one should confuse being a cap team with spending foolishly. The good teams spend but they spend wisely.

There is also the fact the Hurricanes are generally regarded as one of the top drafting and developing clubs in the NHL, regularly landing at the top end of prospect lists from around the hockey world.

 

 

So, what does that mean moving forward?

The blue line remains a position of strength for a Carolina team that won a William Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in a season and that's not going to change, even with veterans Ian Cole and Brendan Smith both, 33, both pending unrestricted free agents.

It's hard to imagine both returning.

Ethan Bear didn't play a playoff game and never really found his footing after a bout with COVID-19. Bear is 24 and is arbitration-eligible. The question would seem to be whether the coaching staff believes with work he fits into the top six next season and whether Bear feels he can be part of the mix?

Difficult to answer, especially with the play of Jalen Chatfield when he was called up from Chicago and other young defensemen in the system.

The biggest defensive issue rests with Tony DeAngelo, also a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. The 26-year-old is to be due a big raise after signing a one-year deal with the Hurricanes for $1 million - delivering impressively on the offensive side of the puck and displaying better than imagined defense.

Waddell said he hopes the two sides find common ground on dollar and term, especially with one year left before DeAngelo hits unrestricted free agency. If not DeAngelo the question becomes where do you find a player who can move the puck and create as much as he did on the power play, highlighted during the regular season and against Boston in the first round? Even though DeAngelo struggled against his old Ranger teammates the question of how to effectively replace that offense and at what cost looms large, given the general power outage the Hurricanes suffered during the playoffs.

Slightly complicating the defensive picture is the news delivered by Waddell Thursday that erstwhile defenseman Jake Gardiner has been medically cleared to play after missing the entire season with back and hip injuries. He has one year left on his deal at $4.05 million and a limited no-trade clause.

Although well-liked in the room it's hard to imagine that Gardiner fits into the team's plans for next season.

 

 

The forward group looks to see the most significant change which is perhaps inevitable.

Nino Niederreiter, Max Domi, Vincent Trocheck and Derek Stepan are all unrestricted free agents. It would not be a huge surprise to see all of those players depart. Steve Lorentz and Martin Necas are restricted free agents.

Brind'Amour said Thursday he hopes Trocheck, the team's number two center, will be back although he did add that he hopes all the players will be back and that's not going to happen.

If Trocheck departs the Canes could look to either Necas or Jesperi Kotkaniemi to grow into the number two pivot role behind Sebastian Aho, but with the Cup as the goal that seems to leave too much to chance for a pivotal roster spot, especially if the team has some money to spend on free agency.

Niederreiter scored three goals in the first two games of the playoffs and then tallied just once in the final 12 games following a trend where playoff production has been an issue for the 29-year-old although he, captain Jordan Staal and Jesper Fast were the one constant among the forward group this season.

After the stunning success of rookie Seth Jarvis, who made the team out of training camp and then continued to evolve and grow and was arguably the team's best player throughout the playoffs before being concussed by a Jacob Trouba hit in Game 7, it's tempting to look for a Jarvis Redux next fall.

Center Jack Drury, 22, has NHL tools and is an important part of one of the best teams in the American Hockey League in Chicago.

Defensemen Joey Keane, 22, who earned a one-game call-up this season, and Jesper Sellgren, 23, are also highly regarded by the Hurricanes.

Perhaps there will be a young player among the Hurricanes' impressive larder of prospects that simply plays his way into the discussion at training camp, a la Jarvis.

If it happens that is a bonus. But it's important to remember this is a young Canes team already and it's fair to ask whether some of this year's playoff disappointment is a function of simply learning the hard lessons of being not just a good team but a great team, a Stanley Cup team.

 

Video: DET@CAR: Drury scores his first goal in NHL debut

 

The Rangers, chock-a-block with star talent in their early 20s, added a handful of older, more experienced players starting last off-season and continuing through the '22 trade deadline. Andrew Copp, Tyler Motte, Justin Braun, Barclay Goodrow, Ryan Reaves and Frank Vatrano, all helped balance the roster dynamic. It's hard to argue the results of that roster balance as the Rangers as of this writing were two wins away from a Stanley Cup final berth.

Aho, Necas, Kotkaniemi, Jarvis and Andrei Svechnikov are all under the age of 25. All will be expected to shoulder an even greater load moving forward. That's how it's supposed to work. Draft or acquire young talent and develop it.

But how that young offensive core is augmented with either re-signing pending UFAs or signing others from the UFA market or acquiring players via trade will be one of the storylines of the summer.

Necas, like Bear and DeAngelo, is a restricted free agent. This was a difficult season for the 12th overall pick in 2017 and he admitted Thursday that this season marked a step back for him in terms of his development. It was.

If he stays with the Hurricanes this next season will be a critical one for Necas. And while there may be consideration given to trying to move the young forward the danger, of course, is that the return given his struggles will be modest and to have Necas go somewhere else and then realize his rather significant potential would be problematic.

Brind'Amour admitted it's on he and the coaching staff to get the most out of the talented youngster although when it comes to playing center which Necas would prefer, that will require Necas shows a commitment on his part, too, to improving and earning what is an important position in the Hurricanes' scheme.

 

 

As for the goaltending, one might have imagined that having won a Jennings Trophy the goaltending would be the least of the Hurricanes' woes and it yet might be, but things certainly didn't go as planned at the most critical position in the most critical parts of the season.

Andersen last appeared on April 16 against Colorado when he suffered what was announced post-playoffs as an MCL tear. He reported that he was close to returning to action but the fact still remains this is two playoff seasons in a row when Andersen has been physically unable to play in the playoffs.

Antti Raanta did yeoman work for the Hurricanes in relief of Andersen, taking on a workload that the affable Finn had never experienced before. Like the rest of the team he was lights out at home and less lights out on the road.

Raanta was injured in Game 7 with the Hurricanes trailing and was replaced by rookie Pyotr Kochetkov. Raanta said Thursday it was an MCL sprain, not unlike the injury suffered by Andersen and will take six to eight weeks to get back to normal.

Both Raanta and Andersen have one year left on their current deals at a combined cap hit of $6.5 million, which is cap heaven. Andersen has a modified no-trade clause but even if there was consideration given to making a change in goal the pool of available goaltenders is shallow and there are a number of teams looking to shore up that position.

Kochetkov was a terrific story coming to North America mid-season from the Kontinental Hockey League and then tearing it up at the American Hockey Level and winning his first three NHL games late in the regular season.

But surely another year at the AHL level would not hurt the 22-year-old.

So, even if there is renewed trepidation about the durability of Raanta and Andersen, it's hard to imagine that it won't be the Jennings duo back to take another run at it in 2022-23. And how many NHL teams wouldn't mind that setup?

Funny how it goes, no?

 

 

Brind'Amour noted that a couple of bounces go a different way the Hurricanes are still playing. And these meetings and conversations are for another day.

That's the beauty and the curse of sport. And so already the team and their fans are putting this season in the rear view mirror and facing forward, already wondering at what lies ahead.

Raanta put it best, perhaps, that there's a feeling in the Hurricanes room that it would be great if there wasn't a summer off-season, that they were about to get right back at it and commence again the journey for the big prize.

Have to believe many fans share that sentiment.

 


  

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Exit Interviews: Don Waddell & Rod Brind'Amour

Canes STMs Leave Their Mark At Paint The Ice Event

Exit Interviews: Raanta, Jarvis & Free Agents

CanesCast Episode 213: All Good Things Must Come To An End

Canes End Of Season Media Availability Videos

Exit Interviews: The Leadership Group

Canes Contract Tracker

Photo Gallery: End of Season Media Availabilities

Canes Reassign Kochetkov, LaFontaine To Chicago (AHL)

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