Are the Carolina Hurricanes still prepared for a promising future, or is their on-paper talent just masking the many flaws hidden within the roster?
Even Jim Rutherford isn't sure.
"I thought we had a good product," he told the media Wednesday afternoon. "As we speak today, we don't."
The general manager's bewilderment is one that can be found throughout the Hurricanes organization at the moment.
With Alexander Semin and Jordan Staal brought in for the 2013 season, expectations were at an all-time high entering the lockout-shortened campaign. For 25 idyllic games, those expectations were met with ease.
And then they suddenly weren't. The wheels fell off the Hurricanes' confidence and, hence, their season. Now, with just one win in 10 games, the reality of a fourth consecutive non-playoff spring is beginning to set in.
And yet, despite this skid, the 'Canes remain just four points out of the Southeast Division lead with three games in hand; both Justin Faulk and Tuomo Ruutu are set to soon return to the lineup, as well.
That paradox of opportunity and disappointment seemed to, frankly, paralyze Rutherford at the deadline.
Over the weekend, we pondered whether the 'Canes would be sellers or buyers during Wednesday's flurry of trades.
They apparently never decided.
Rutherford made just one move prior to the 3 p.m. deadline, shipping Jussi Jokinen to Pittsburgh for essentially nothing in a salary-freeing move. He added no defensive defenseman. He added no promising goaltender. He added no gritty, physical bottom-six forward.
As the beleaguered hockey fans of Raleigh frustratingly prepare for ticket and parking price hikes next season, the least the Hurricanes could have offered them today was a direction.
Add a reliable, noteworthy NHL star or two, and optimism could've been renewed for the coming month. Load up for next year with a high-profile prospect and first- or second-round pick, and at least there would be a "better future" to look forward to.
But no. The Hurricanes only stood pat, motionless and pitiful, as teams like the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild—teams formerly in the exact same spin cycle of mediocrity as them—made moves to establish themselves as legitimate contenders.
By 3:30, when it was clear Wednesday was just another sad, sad day in the sad, sad downfall of the Hurricanes' season, Rutherford sounded like a retirement home-bound hobbit with a severe need for anti-depressants. He sounded worn down by the vigor of negotiating in a "tough position"—an excuse which has become increasingly cliche in 'Canes post-deadline press conferences.
He sounded defeated.
Just like the rest of the team.