With the every-other-day cadence of a 56-game regular season and two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Dougie Hamilton said Thursday felt like a game day more than anything else.
"We had a day off and now we're back at it," he said.
Instead, the Carolina Hurricanes were meeting with medical staff and coaches one last time, outlining summer training plans, cleaning out their locker stalls and saying goodbyes - some perhaps more lasting than others.
This is an important offseason for the Canes, a pivotal one, even, given the number of contracts due for renewal on the heels of a Second Round exit in the postseason.
Yes, the Canes had one of their most successful regular seasons in franchise history. They won 36 games and finished with the second-most points in the entire National Hockey League. In doing so, they won their first divisional title since 2005-06.
Those are all vital steps in the overall process. It all matters. In his end-of-season media availability, Brett Pesce recalled his favorite moment of the season: Hanging out in the players' lounge at the team's hotel in Nashville and finding out that the Canes had won the Central Division.
"It wasn't our end goal, but we battled really hard. Every game, the boys came to play. We try not to take games off," he said. "You just tip your cap to everyone involved for getting us there."
That's important, and it's certainly worth celebrating. A banner that reads "2020-21 Central Division Champions" is going to look mighty nice in the rafters, given it's the first piece of fabric to make its way up there in 15 years.
But, it's the Second Round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning that still stings even two days later. Thursday was supposed to be a game day, if the Canes had forced a Game 6 in Tampa. Instead, they were answering questions about that next step and how the team can achieve that next season.
The expectation isn't to make the playoffs. It's to be the best, to win the Stanley Cup. Anything short of that? Well, it's a disappointment.
"We know the Second Round isn't where we want to finish our season. We want to be able to take it all the way and knock on the door every year. This is a disappointment for us," Vincent Trocheck said. "We need to take this loss, use it as experience, learn from it, get a little better this summer and come back ready to go next year."
Video: "We wanna be knocking on the door every year."
So, who will be back come training camp in September? The Canes are facing more question marks this summer than they have in a couple of years.
It starts in the crease. Petr Mrazek and James Reimer are unrestricted free agents, while Alex Nedeljkovic, who cemented himself as an NHL goaltender with a Calder Trophy finalist-worthy season, is a restricted free agent. It's hard to imagine Nedeljkovic not being a part of the Canes' goaltending future.
"There's always that little bit of uncertainty when you don't have a deal. It's a little different as an RFA since there's one team to focus on," he said. "I'm excited. I've loved living in North Carolina. The time I had in Charlotte was great. It was an awesome city. Being able to spend time in Raleigh this year was great, learning more about the city and area. Living here and meeting the people. These are some great fans."
Video: "I finally got an extended look [at playing]."
Hamilton headlines the decision-making the Canes have on defense. The 27-year-old is an unrestricted free agent, and after posting 42 points (10g, 32a) in 55 games, he's in a position to land what's likely to be the most lucrative contract of his career.
"To be honest, I don't really have any idea right now. … I was very focused on hockey and trying to win," Hamilton said when asked about his contract status. "Everyone knows I really enjoy it here. I got some really good friends and met some really good people in the room and away from the room off the ice too. A lot of friends that I'll have. The staff, everybody in the organization is great. I have nothing bad to say about my experience here and being a Carolina Hurricane. I really enjoyed it. Hopefully we can keep going."
Video: "I wanted to focus on hockey."
Up front, Jordan Martinook, Brock McGinn and Cedric Paquette are unrestricted free agents.
"I want to be back here. I like it here, and I like where this team is going. Over the last couple of years we've made some big steps. It's a good group and a good core. On the contract side, I don't know right now," McGinn said. "We'll see where things go.
Andrei Svechnikov, Warren Foegele and Morgan Geekie are restricted free agents. In the case of Svechnikov, the Canes' second overall draft pick from 2018, it's more a matter of how the contract is structured, whether it's a longer-term agreement or more of a bridge deal.
"I would love to stay here," Svechnikov said. "I love it here. I love the fans. I love the team."
Video: "It was a tough season with everything scheduled."
And then, of course, there are the contracts of Rod Brind'Amour and his coaching staff, but Brind'Amour isn't going anywhere. This is his home, and this is his team. When he was named head coach three years ago, he set out to instill a culture change and to raise the level of expectations.
Three seasons later, the results are evident. The Canes continue to trend upward and have become a perennial playoff threat.
But there's another level, another gear, and what happens this offseason could go a long way in determining what that next step is and if this team is ready to take it.
"The expectation is to win. Even though we made playoffs, everybody in the dressing room is disappointed with the outcome this year. Everybody's expectation coming in is winning the Stanley Cup," McGinn said. "Anything other than that, I feel like we didn't do our job. I think everybody in this room is disappointed. We've got to come back next year and work for it."