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Busy Weeks Ahead for Canes

Decisions to be made with draft, free agency ahead

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes / CarolinaHurricanes.com

Summer officially begins on Friday, June 21, but summer vacations will have to wait for the Carolina Hurricanes, who have a busy couple of weeks in front of them.

But before we look ahead to a frenzied schedule that packs the NHL Draft, a schedule release, Prospects Development Camp and free agency, among other highlights, into just a couple of weeks, let's first look back on the month since the Hurricanes bowed out in the Eastern Conference Final.

Led by head coach Mike Vellucci, the Charlotte Checkers captured their first ever Calder Cup after defeating the Chicago Wolves in five games in the American Hockey League's Calder Cup Finals.

"We had a real talented team, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to win. You've got to figure it out and push the right buttons. Mike made some nice moves," head coach Rod Brind'Amour said when I spoke with him at the Executive Mansion last week. "We were bringing guys up and down early in the playoffs, and that affects your team. I think that's where he did a real nice job. The guys down there deserve a lot of credit. They played hard. It was a team win. Every night it was a different guy who stepped up, played well for them and made a difference."

"It's hard to win championships. I don't care what level you're at," President and General Manager Don Waddell said. "They had some really, really tough series and games, but the end result was they stuck together. Mike Vellucci did a great job coaching."

The Checkers' Calder Cup title, paired with the Hurricanes' deep playoff run, signals a shift in organizational culture and provides stout foundational building blocks for the years to come.

"I think winning breeds winning, just as losing breeds losing," Waddell said. "Any time you can get a player and put him in a winning situation - they got to play 20-some more playoff games, which is almost a quarter more of the season and a lot tougher hockey, that's great for their development."

"What we're doing up here, it's paramount. We want to win here. With the Checkers winning, it's great because all those young guys are coming here and are going to be here," Brind'Amour said. "That's just the natural progression bringing here that attitude. Winners win, no matter what level. We definitely have to keep that thought process, and that expectation level of our organization has to remain high."

The Canes' run to the Eastern Conference Final came to a bittersweet end on May 16 - bitter because it ended in a sweep but sweet because it happened in the first place, introducing playoff hockey to a new generation of Canes fans.

End-of-year evaluations followed the next week, a brief period to pause and reflect before turning the page.

KEY OFFSEASON DATES FOR THE CANES

"I've definitely had time to look back. We're already looking forward," Brind'Amour said. "Now, we're trying to figure out how to get everyone back and sign players. That becomes a challenge. How do you get better with all that? It was a fun year. I think we overachieved in a lot of ways, but it's what we expected. We got the most out of the group, and now we have to figure out how to get that group and get better."

That group includes a number of soon-to-be unrestricted free agents. Both Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, who helped to stabilize the team's netminding, played critical roles in the Canes' success in the second half of the regular season and the playoffs. Both are likely also due raises and could opt to test the waters of the open market come July 1.

"We don't compare ourselves to other markets. We compare ourselves to our own market. We've got to base it on what revenues are, so we have a structure in place for our team. We've got to try to live within that. I'm confident that if we can't sign these guys, that we'll get quality goaltending," Waddell said. "We'd like to have our guys back, but we have other options."

Video: Exit Interviews: Petr Mrazek

One of those options in net could be Alex Nedeljkovic, who backstopped the Checkers to the Calder Cup and was named the AHL's goaltender of the year.

"Every place he's been, he just wins," Waddell said, noting Nedeljkovic was victorious in his first NHL start in Vancouver in January. "He doesn't need waivers this year. If we sign two other guys and he has to start the year off down [in the AHL], it's OK. If we only sign one other guy, we're very pleased to have him competing for the starting job. I think we're in a good spot there, but if we can't sign Petr or Curtis, we've got to be in the goalie market coming up here soon."

Micheal Ferland, acquired from Calgary nearly a year ago in a multi-player, draft-day trade, is another headliner on the Canes' short list of unrestricted free agents.

"He wants to go to July 1. I'm not going to rule out that he never comes back, but his agent made it clear that he's played to this point in his career to get to free agency and test the market," Waddell said. "We'll let the market set up and see where it ends up."

And then there's Justin Williams, who signed a two-year contract for a second stint with the Hurricanes nearly two years ago. He was the unquestioned leader of one of the youngest teams in the NHL this season and finished his 18th NHL season with 23 goals and 53 points.

What's next for 16th player in franchise history to serve as captain? Williams is an unrestricted free agent, but the 37-year-old will either re-sign with the Hurricanes or hang up the skates, a decision he said he wouldn't make irrationally.

Video: Exit Interviews: Justin Williams

His head coach and former Stanley Cup-winning teammate hasn't reached out - yet, at least.

"I'll give him some time," Brind'Amour said. "We'll figure all that out hopefully at some point before the season starts. He needs a little break, I think. I think we all do, just mentally."

"I think he's still 50-50. We respect that. He's been through a lot. It was a long season for him and a very successful season," Waddell said. "I don't want to force that just yet. I want to wait and let him make that decision."

Another contract that will need to be sorted out this summer is that of Sebastian Aho. The 21-year-old, who is a restricted free agent, put up career numbers in 2018-19 with a team-high 30 goals and 83 points.

"We're in talks with his representation. I don't think it's going to go quickly. We're going to meet again at the draft. These kinds of deals take a little time to put together," Waddell said. "I believe we'll get something done obviously in time, but I don't expect anything to happen in the very near future."

The aforementioned names highlight half of the Hurricanes' stated goals for the offseason - retain the group they had as best they can. The other half - improve as a team - will look to be accomplished through trades or free agency.

Video: Don Waddell and Rod Brind'Amour Press Conference

So, where can the Hurricanes improve the most. And, how?

"Our blue line is pretty solid. It'd be tough to say we could get too much better, and I don't know where that would come," Brind'Amour said. "We've got to get our goalies signed. That's got to be, to me, a priority. Obviously finances come into question. There is a line in the sand you've got to draw because we've got to have enough for everybody. That becomes an issue, for sure. If we could get better, we'd love to see us produce a little more up front, but we'll have to see about that."

Waddell said adding a scoring punch via a top-six forward is something that would more likely be accomplished through a trade rather than free agency. And trade chatter, he said, is fairly active, especially among teams pressed up against the cap ceiling.

Though the Hurricanes have historically not been a July 1 team, their sales pitch grows in attractiveness with the success of this past season.

"100 percent. We put Raleigh on the map not only locally but nationally," Waddell said. "Players want to be a part of winning organizations. I think we started something, and it's not going to just happen overnight, but I think we're now a destination that people at least want to talk about."

More immediately, the Hurricanes will add to their organization through the 2019 NHL Draft, which will take place June 21 and 22 in Vancouver. The Hurricanes are one of five teams that hold a league-high 10 selections.

"It's a little harder this year. Last year we had the No. 2 pick, so we knew we were going to get a top player," Wadell said. "We're going to look to see what's in the draft, but we're also not opposed to, if there's a player for our team right now, making a trade. We're still trying to improve our team. If we can do that via trades using draft picks or whatever assets we have, we're going to look at all those options."

It's going to be a busy couple of weeks for the Hurricanes, quite possibly the busiest of a shortened summer. It begins this week with the draft and continues through free agency in early July.

"We want to get good players, but we also want to get good people," Waddell said. "I think that's an important part of the equation because we've got a good thing going here. You want to make sure you get the right type of character players."

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