What began as a totally normal 82-game campaign ended in completely unexpected fashion almost a full calendar year later. From start to finish, the 2019-20 season was wildly unpredictable and one that will likely never be replicated.
It was a roller coaster of highs and lows for the Carolina Hurricanes, who, after breaking a decade-long playoff drought the season prior, hit the ice with a renewed sense of expectation and promise.
The team now moves forward better for the experiences they lived, including seeing their season end in the First Round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Not yet a week removed from that decisive Game 5 in Toronto, Canes President and General Manager Don Waddell and head coach Rod Brind'Amour sat down to analyze the past and theorize about the future.
Here are five takeaways from Monday's end-of-season virtual press conference.
1. Taking Strides
The Canes' magical run in 2018-19 ended in the Eastern Conference Final when they were swept by the Boston Bruins.
After sweeping the New York Rangers in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, the Canes again drew the Bruins - the ninth-ranked team in the NHL facing off with the Presidents' Trophy winners, of all match-ups - in the First Round of the playoffs.
Though the Canes' season again ended at the hands of the Bruins, this time in five games, there were evident strides in how the Canes matched up against and responded to Boston.
Video: "This year, we were in every game."
"I felt like this year we were in every game, even though I don't even know if we played our best in every game," Brind'Amour said. "We definitely closed the gap there, and it certainly felt different this year than last year playing them. The result was the same at the end of the day, but I feel like our guys took a big step, especially our younger players. Like I said after, as long as we learn from that, that experience will be valuable moving forward."
If 2019 was first learning how to walk in the postseason, 2020 was a tough lesson in staying on your feet, and the Canes' young core will be mindful of that moving forward.
2. Will to Win
The Canes' young core is highlighted by Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov, cornerstones of the team's offense.
Aho finished the postseason with a team-best 12 points (3g, 9a) in eight games. Svechnikov, even though he missed the last two games of the First Round with a high-ankle sprain, led the teams in goals (4), three of which came via the franchise's first postseason hat trick in Game 2 of the Qualifiers.
Video: NYR@CAR, Gm2: Svechnikov makes history with hatty
"The talent is there with those two guys. What excites me - and you've heard me say this all the time - is their will to get better. These guys are not satisfied with where they are individually and certainly not team-wise. Especially seeing Sebastian after we were done, the look on his face, the pure devastation, really. This guy wants to win," Brind'Amour said. "When you have that will to win and the desire to work at it - everyone wants to win, but not everybody wants to do what it takes. With Svech, it's the same way. When you have those two guys as our superstar players, and they're our young guys, that's what makes you excited about where we're at and where we're headed."
3. Decisions, Decisions
With every offseason comes player movement, and for the Canes, the 2020 offseason will be one that likely brings changes to an already crowded blue line.
Joel Edmundson, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Sami Vatanen are unrestricted free agents, while Haydn Fleury is a restricted free agent.
"We think our defense is one of the better defenses in the league, and we want to keep the group together as much as we can," Waddell said. "Right now, I couldn't give you definite answers on any of those guys, other than we do feel that's the strength of our hockey club, and we need to continue that moving forward."
Fleury, the seventh overall pick from the 2014 NHL Draft, impressed with his play in the postseason, especially in the First Round, when he tied for the series team lead in goals (2) and was a plus-3. He'll be the most likely to re-sign of that bunch, with the unrestricted statuses of the other three likely leading them to explore alternatives.
Video: CAR@BOS, Gm5: Fleury nets far-side wrister
Not even taking into consideration potential signings or larger trades, if the Canes were to re-sign Fleury, their top six for the 2020-21 season would essentially be set with Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton, Brady Skjei, Brett Pesce (he's skating now and will obviously be healthy for the start of the season, Waddell said), Fleury and Jake Gardiner. Toss in Jake Bean as a seventh defenseman, and the Canes' blue line again has the makings of one of the best in the league.
The only expiring forward contracts on the NHL roster belong to Warren Foegele, a restricted free agent, and Justin Williams, with more on him below. In net, both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer are under contract for next season.
But that isn't to say that the Canes won't look to improve their roster at any position. If anything, a First Round playoff exit suggests the team should indeed at least make some peripheral tweaks.
"We want to be careful. If we can upgrade our team at any position, we'll certainly look at that, but we're not out here saying we have to make wholesale changes to our lineup," Waddell said. "We're talking about how we're going to build a team to go deep in the playoffs and win a Stanley Cup. … We all want to win. That's the bottom line."
4. Williams' Future
After stepping away from the game for half a season, Justin Williams returned to the Canes' lineup in January in a quest to win his fourth Stanley Cup, a journey that fell 15 wins short.
"It was pretty emotional after the game talking with him," Brind'Amour said.
When Williams re-signed with the Canes in mid-January, he didn't commit to anything beyond the remainder of the season - and even that went deeper into 2020 than he or anyone could have expected.
On Oct. 4, Williams will turn 39 years old. Does he have any fuel, fumes or otherwise, left in the tank? That's a question for a later day, but the impact he's made on the organization is evident.
"To me, he epitomizes what we're all about. Class. Team first. Coming and doing your job every day. This guy did everything right. He came here and took on a huge leadership role, especially when I took over. He helped put this place back on the map and got us back on track to where we want to be," Brind'Amour said. "If he doesn't play anymore, he left everything out there. I don't think many guys can say they go out on those terms."
5. Uncertainty Ahead
The NHL is well on its way to awarding the Stanley Cup, a testament to the tireless work behind the scenes in safely and effectively pulling off this postseason tournament.
"You have to give credit to everybody involved. To be honest with you, it couldn't have run any smoother," Brind'Amour said. "From when we first came back here to train and the way our staff handled everything to the league taking over when we got to the bubble and how smoothly everything ran, they did everything the way they needed to do it. I have to give them full marks for that."
The Cup Final will conclude in late September or early October, typically the time the puck drops on a new regular season. The NHL Draft will be conducted virtually on Oct. 9 and 10. Free agency will open soon after, and beyond that, the calendar is littered with question marks. Tentative dates are set for the opening of training camps and the start of the 2020-21 regular season, but those remain moving targets dependent upon a number of COVID-19-related factors.
According to Waddell, the league remains committed to a full 82-game season for 2020-21, even if it begins in December or January.
"We all know it's going to be a condensed schedule, and it might run into the summer again next year before we get back on track," he said.
Waddell added that the economics of a bubble concept wouldn't make sense for a full season, but there's also no guarantee that fans will be allowed in buildings around the league by the time the puck drops again.
"We've done all kinds of models," Waddell said. "If we don't play at full capacity, the losses are going to be big, but that's around the league. … These are tough times for everybody."
The 2021 Stadium Series, currently slated for Feb. 20 at Carter-Finley Stadium, is likely to be affected, as well.
"The date is obviously going to be in flux depending on where we're at with how many people you can have in the building, inside or outside. A lot of that is driven by the state," Waddell said. "It could even get pushed back a year depending on what happens with the schedule. We actually just in the last few days had to order our jerseys for it, so we're still proceeding as if it's going to happen. We just can't say it's going to happen in February. That will be more dictated once the schedule gets set and the NHL decides we're going to open up."
Just as it was in March and the months that followed, it's a waiting game - for now.