Well, to put it simply, the 'Canes just didn't do well enough to deserve the postseason, at least this year. Only eight teams in each conference make the playoffs; eleventh place just isn't going to cut it.
However, Carolina still has plenty of opportunities to make sure they are "good enough" next season to make it. With four and half months left of their long, hot offseason, the 'Canes still have plenty of time and plenty of chances to make a few improvements on their roster that may make the biggest of differences come next season.
First up is the 2010 NHL Draft, coming up in a little over a month on June 25-26 in Los Angeles. The Hurricanes will pick with the seventh overall pick in the first round and then have four more picks in the second round, part of a draft day that may include up to 12 Hurricanes selections.
Following that will be the opening of free agency on the first of July. While the scorching 100-degree heat blazes out in the streets of Raleigh, the Hurricanes will enter perhaps the most important month for franchise's hopes looking towards the future.
In an earlier installment, I previewed the Hurricanes upcoming offseason in just 1,700 words, discussing which upcoming free agents the Hurricanes would want to re-sign, who deserves contract extensions, and how those transactions would work out in a Hurricanes' "offseason mid-point roster".
You can read that article here .
In the meantime, I determined that, if the Hurricanes few re-signing decisions go as I planned, the Hurricanes' NHL-level roster, with these subtractions and raises included, would look something like this:
Left Wing: Jussi Jokinen ($3 million), Ray Whitney ($2.25 million), Sergei Samsonov ($2.8 million), Tuomo Ruutu ($4 million)
Center: Eric Staal ($7.5 million), Brandon Sutter ($2 million), Patrick Dwyer ($.5 million)
Right Wing: Erik Cole ($3 million), Chad LaRose ($1.9 million), Tom Kostopoulos ($.95 million), Zach Boychuk ($.875 million)
Defense: Tim Gleason ($4 million), Joni Pitkanen ($4.5 million), Brian Pothier ($2 million), Alexandre Picard ($1.5 million), Jamie McBain ($.685 million)
Goaltender: Cam Ward ($5 million), Justin Peters ($1 million)
This would leave a very solid and well-paid group at left wing and with Ward still in net, goaltender isn't an issue, either.
However, center needs at least one more player, especially one that could add some experience to that young trio. Also, only Jiri Tlusty has any NHL experience of the Hurricanes' AHL batch of centers, unless Zach Boychuk shifts back to his former position (which would then leave another opening at right wing).
Defense is another hole, as Carolina Hurricanes' GM Jim Rutherford noted it as "[his] biggest offseason priority." In addition to the current two-man base of Gleason and Pitkanen, Picard is also likely to return, standout rookie Jamie McBain is blossoming into a key centerpiece, and Brian Pothier is the Hurricanes' most talented upcoming UFA, so he is likely to return as well.
Unfortunately, this still leaves at least one gap open, and if Pothier is not going to be kept in Carolina, another player will also have to be brought in. Bryan Rodney, Brett Carson, and Jay Harrison were all decent in some time with Carolina but probably none of them are players the Hurricanes would like to have to rely on as full-time starters, and Jonathan Paiement and Zach Fitzgerald have no NHL experience.
Right wing could also use some help, as a legitimate, proven player to play alongside Cole on the top two lines would be a major addition. Obviously, the Hurricanes have no AHL player at the moment to fill this crucial position.
With an approximated $9 million left under the salary cap and around $3-4 million guaranteed to be saved as some additional extra space, this leaves around $5-6 million left to go out and find an upper-echelon right wing, and at least one center and defenseman.
While the Hurricanes' draft pick surplus could help bring in plenty of depth at these positions, very few entry-level selections make an impact within the next two seasons. This means that Carolina may end up scouring the free agent market fairly thoroughly—but that's not to say they won't have a shortage of options to make a contract offer to.
Here are the upcoming free agents at center, right wing, and defense that most fit the Hurricanes' style and specific need for the right price and right competition.
The first thing that jumps out at you about the 'Canes positional situation is that, unlike most other spots, the Hurricanes could use a veteran. With Staal at age 26, Patrick Dwyer at 26, and Brandon Sutter at 21, the Hurricane not only need a fourth, but they need a fourth with some experience.
The first player to jump out at you of the upcoming free agent list for center is 32-year-old UFA (unrestricted free agent) Eric Belanger, who has 15 goals and 26 assists (41 points) for the Washington Capitals this season. Belanger would not only add a veteran presence to the youthful collection, but would still have five or six years left on him and would be used to a quick, puck-moving environment with the Capitals.
Belanger is currently earning $1.75 million per season, and a slightly lower contract offer from the 'Canes would only knock out about one-fourth of the Hurricanes' available money to spend. A similar option in terms of price would be 26-year-old center Kyle Wellwood from Vancouver, who's also going to become a UFA this offseason.
Wellwood, who's seven years younger than Belanger, had 25 points with the Canucks this season finishing out his $1.2 million per season contract. He would be a slightly cheaper option for Carolina and may be in less demand, but the loss of production may shift the scale towards Belanger.
However, actually, if the Hurricanes are indeed looking for a player who consistently produces offensively, 28-year-old Matthew Lombardi has 53 points this season in the desert for the Coyotes. Lombardi is probably going to spark just as much interest as any right wing available around the league, though, and his $2.35 million per year contract is also a little over the Hurricanes' range.
Similarly to Lombardi, current Atlanta Thrasher center Bryan Little has 34 points this season while getting paid just $.85 million per season. Unfortunately, the 22-year-old up-and-coming prospect may be hard to get a hold of given his restricted free agent status in Atlanta.
Current Thrasher Jim Slater may also be an option to steal out of Georgia, as Slater generated 18 points at the same price as Little and does have five more years of experience.
While the Carolina Hurricanes' four right wing slots are going to be filled one way or another, it's still uncertain whether Rutherford and the Hurricanes management are going to feel comfortable with Erik Cole, Tom Kostopoulos, Chad LaRose, and prospect Zach Boychuk. If they do have a few questions with the group, which is likely, it may be a good bet to go shopping for a solid second-line winger.
Current Coyote and former Flyer Scottie Upshall fits that query very well, as he produced 32 points in the regular season for Phoenix while finishing out the last year of a $1.5 million per season contract that designates him a limited restricted free agent following the playoffs. Upshall, 26, would be a good fit in Carolina, but there are also other options.
One "other option" would be 27-year-old Colby Armstrong, yet another Thrasher on the Hurricanes' watch list. Armstrong may be a bit overpaid at $2.4 million per season, but his 29 points and even bigger potential (despite his prime age) could reform Armstrong into a good winger to give a little bit of a position battle to injury-battling, uninspired Erik Cole.
You can also throw 24-year-old RFA Brandon Yip out of Colorado into the mix, as his very cheap $575,000 contract combined with his 11 goals may not be good enough for a second liner, but could provide an additional skater at the right wing position.
Carolina's biggest hole will not be its biggest hole for long, that's for sure. There are a whopping 147 total free-agent defenseman around the NHL, and it wouldn't be surprising at all to find more than one of them end up in Raleigh, North Carolina, come next autumn.
The most expensive and also most proven player to fit that need would be Nashville Predators' top-pairing defenseman Dan Hamhuis, who was a plus-four and had 24 points in 78 regular season games played. Hamhuis, at 27, is right in his prime, not a major name but still a proven one, and gives a solid physical effort night in and night out. If they let him slip through their fingers, a no-sign of Hamhuis may be a mistake in itself for Carolina.
That is, however, until they realize there's also Kurtis Foster on the market, who brought a career season this year down in Tampa. The 28-year-old power-play specialist Foster notched eight goals and 34 assists with the Lightning, and his upcoming UFA status could end up bringing him to Carolina as a replacement for the similar Joe Corvo.
Foster also is offering all of this production for almost no cost in the salary cap category; his current (yet expiring) contract only paid him $0.6 million per year!
The third player in the mix would be Ranger D-man Marc Staal, the younger brother of franchise centerpiece Eric Staal. Staal—err, "Marc," that is,—may be only a restricted free agent, but his 27 points and plus-11 rating are a bargain for a young puck-moving defenseman that, as for now, only costs $765,000 per season.
If the Hurricanes, in the end, decide not to go with one of these three leading players, they still have a lot to chose from. I picked out 28-year-old Kings' defenseman Randy Jones (has a $3 million-per season contract as a drawback, though), 26-year-old Capitals' defenseman Milan Jurcina (only played 44 games this season, however), and 25-year-old Panthers' defenseman Jason Garrison (just eight points but a plus-five) also as other possible signees.
In the long run, the Hurricanes probably aren't going to pick up any top-name guys: there will be no Olli Jokinen, Ilya Kovalchuk, or Patrick Marleau coming to Carolina anytime soon (although all of them are UFA's, however). Fortunately, the Hurricanes don't need superstars to succeed, and, truthfully, they never have.
If the Hurricanes can retain their confidence built by a successful spring and just stay true to their makeup by making the smart decisions when choosing whom to sign, they're going to go into the 2010-2011 season with just as much confidence as ever.
Confidence that, this time, will be backed up with the fact that they truly have a foolproof roster bound to bring the Stanley Cup playoffs back to Carolina.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the Carolina Hurricanes. In his 20 months so far with the site, he has written over 185 articles and received over 125,000 total reads.
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