RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes are facing the challenging stretch of building a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
A second-round exit to the New York Rangers highlighted the need for more postseason goal scoring and better special-teams play. Yet the Hurricanes must decide how much to change after posting the league’s third-best record, a franchise-record 116 points and a second straight division title.
“Every year when this ends, it’s always tough,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said after Monday’s Game 7 loss to the Rangers. “Tougher maybe because I felt like we were in a different spot this year. … And it’s another chance – I don’t want to say lost – but it’s another year where you don’t get that chance.”
The goal has gone from being relevant after a nine-year postseason drought to being elite in their current four-year run. Yet the Hurricanes have seen the past two seasons end in familiar setbacks: falling in their building in a series with home-ice advantage, losing the special-teams battle and stymied by an elite goaltender.
Last year it was Tampa Bay and Andrei Vasilevskiy on its way to a second straight Cup, with the Lightning beating the Hurricanes in a five-game second round series. This time, it was the Rangers and Igor Shesterkin beating a team that had won its first seven postseason home games but couldn’t win a road playoff game.
Brind’Amour said last year there was “a next step we’ve got to find.” It seems Carolina is still hunting for it.
Some other things to watch during the Hurricanes’ offseason:
Sebastian Aho (37 goals) and Andrei Svechnikov (30) led a team that relied on depth moreso than any top-tier scorer.
“Do we have elite goal scorers? Maybe not,” Brind’Amour said. “But we have great players. We’re built a little differently than some other teams. That’s OK. You’ve got to play to your strength.”
But the Hurricanes managed just 12 goals on 234 shots against Shesterkin (a 94.9% save percentage) in seven games.
“As a forward, you’ve got to find a way, right?” Aho said.
The Hurricanes had the league’s No. 1 penalty kill during the regular season (88%) but couldn’t stop Rangers scorers like Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Adam Fox. New York erased an 0-2 deficit by converting on 7 of 16 power plays (43.8%) over the last five games.
Then there was Carolina’s power play, which ranked in the top 10 before going on a two-month swoon that carried right into the offseason.
The Hurricanes went 11 for 98 (11.2%) dating in their last 31 games dating to late March, including 2 for 18 in the New York series.
Rewind a year earlier, and the Lightning converted on 15 of 36 power plays (41.7%) compared to the Hurricanes going 6 of 33 (18.1%).
“To get past this point and get over that hump, I think you look back at all our years and I think special teams is the thing it always comes down to – we lose the special-teams battle,” defenseman Jaccob Slavin said.
The Hurricanes look settled in net provided top goaltenders Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta recover fully from injuries after helping Carolina surrender the fewest goals in the league.
Andersen worked as the No. 1 and ranked among the league leaders in wins (35), goals-against average (2.17) and save percentage (.922) before going down to a lower-body injury in mid-April.
Raanta performed well in the playoffs after taking over before going down to an apparent right-leg injury Monday, with Brind’Amour saying Raanta wouldn’t have been able to play the next series had Carolina advanced.
Both are under contract next year after last season’s position overhaul.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
Forwards Vincent Trocheck and Nino Niederreiter stand out as the team’s unrestricted free agents.
The 28-year-old Trocheck is a two-way center who tallied 21 goals and 51 points. The 29-year-old Niederreiter offers a bigger 6-foot-2, 218-pound frame for a team that could use some size and finished with 24 goals while also working alongside captain Jordan Staal on Carolina’s top defensive line in the playoffs.
Others include forwards Derek Stepan and Max Domi, along with defensemen Ian Cole and Brendan Smith.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
Defenseman Tony DeAngelo arrived last summer with a one-year prove-it deal after a tumultuous past. It worked out for both parties.
The 26-year-old led Carolina defensemen with 10 goals and 51 points while joining Slavin on the top defensive pairing and working on Carolina’s top power-play unit.
The Hurricanes also have restricted free agents in defenseman Ethan Bear – acquired last summer in a trade but a healthy scratch throughout 14 playoff games – and forwards Martin Necas and Steven Lorentz.
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