With any late playoff run now out of the question, the Carolina Hurricanes are using the final games of their 2013-14 season to evaluate prospects and borderline players looking ahead to 2014-15.
Four games remain in the season, which marks Carolina's fifth straight without a postseason berth.
For youngsters like Zach Boychuk, Chris Terry and Ryan Murphy, along with upcoming free agents such as Andrei Loktionov, Jiri Tlusty and Ron Hainsey, however, the past few weeks and the final one ahead could prove critical to their futures.
After nine consecutive scoreless games, Terry finally picked up his first two points of the season (both assists) on Thursday against Dallas. Boychuk, meanwhile, was held off the scoresheet Thursday, but sports four points in 10 appearances of his own.
Both will play leading roles in the Checkers' final postseason push this month.
Charlotte is currently tied with Rockford (the Chicago Blackhawks' affiliate) for ninth in the AHL's Western Conference, one point behind Rochester (Buffalo Sabres) for the final playoff spot, but has just four games remaining to its fellow bubble competitors' six.
Boychuk leads both the team and the league with 35 goals, while Terry's 28 tallies rank second on the roster.
With patience growing thin for the two longtime AHL stars—now 24 and 25, respectively—a strong and fruitful closeout to the campaign is a near necessity. Both will need to negotiate new contracts this summer. Boychuk is a restricted free agent while Terry is a UFA.
Ryan Murphy, the Hurricanes' 12th overall pick in 2011, was called up to the 'Canes when the aforementioned pair of fellow youngsters was sent in the other direction.
It has been a frustratingly inconsistent and inconclusive rookie campaign for the 185-pound defenseman at the NHL level.
A tremendous offensive contributor throughout his OHL career and during his time in the AHL—where he has 19 points in 19 games—Murphy has recorded just 12 points and a poor on-ice Corsi (shot attempt differential per 60 minutes) of minus-5.02 in 47 big league matches. He's a minus-six with zero points in his last four as well.
With the pressure as low as it will ever get in the NHL, Murphy needs to prove that his struggles with reliability are more a result of inexperience than immaturity or ineptitude in the final week of 2013-14.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Carolina's swath of veterans free agents—almost all of which, interestingly, occupy depth roles—must also take advantage of their last opportunities to impress expected incoming general manager Ron Francis.
Acquired in early March from New Jersey, newcomer Andrei Loktionov has played well in his 16-game tenure in Raleigh. He's racked up three goals and eight points in his last 11 appearances, showing versatility and flexibility on three different lines.
But is the undersized, 23-year-old center who The News & Observer reports has drawn interest from the KHL part of Ron Francis' vision for the future 'Canes? If he wants to stay, he needs to make his presence stand out.
Fellow RFAs Drayson Bowman, Jiri Tlusty and Nathan Gerbe face similar predicaments.
The latter has already demonstrated his underrated offensive ability with a career-high 31 points, but his 5'5" frame will always be a question mark.
Meanwhile, Bowman and Tlusty, while still fairly young, have both failed to develop long-term identities in Carolina. That could ultimately lead to their departure as the team searches for a more developed bottom six.
After ranking in the top 10 in the league in goals last season, Tlusty needs to show more of the opportunism that led to that breakout performance a year ago. Bowman may have to produce an eruption of passion and points in the week ahead to remain in Carolina.
Aging veteran Manny Malhotra, regardless of his mastery in the faceoff dot (second-best in the league at 59.0 percent), is a pending UFA and has points in two of his last 36 games. He needs to end that streak this week.
On the defensive side, Ron Hainsey and Brett Bellemore are also both set to be UFAs.
While I recently raved about Bellemore's unheralded impact, he has just seven points in 60 games.
Hainsey's advanced stats (plus-1.12 Corsi rating despite starting only 47.7 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone) look good, but he could be a victim of Francis' rebuild of the back end beneath the top pairing.
Cam Ward should receive several starts over the Hurricanes' last four games of 2013-14. They could be his last.
Ward needs to be spectacular to show why he's worth keeping with Anton Khudobin around. If his goal is an outright starting job elsewhere, spectacular would still be helpful—his trade value is at an all-time low.
The 'Canes have just one home game remaining, a Thursday date against bitter rival Washington. They visit the Rangers on Tuesday, then travel to take on the Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers on Friday and Sunday to close out the campaign.
The four games themselves may matter little, but the Hurricanes' individual performances within each could become highly telling of the storylines of the summer offseason ahead.
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