Hurricanes: The Dread & Excitement of Next Year

Our Carolina Hurricanes are on the brink of elimination thanks to Tuukka Rask and only Tuukka Rask (we refuse to acknowledge any other Boston contribution because, frankly, there aren’t any other noteworthy contributions worth acknowledging). While there’s plenty to discuss about the series, such as the lingering issues on special teams, the disappearance of the third and fourth lines, and the uncharacteristic frustration from our captain, now is not – oh wait, forgot to mention the referees – now is not the time to debrief. It takes 4 wins to take a series, and Boston has 3. All you need is a chance, and the Hurricanes still very much have one ahead of them.

Typically, hope ends when the handshakes begin. But for this team, it’s when hope begins. Whether it’s in front of a shocked crowd in Boston after a Game 7 win or in front of an appreciative home crowd after a Game 4 loss, this franchise is on the verge of its 2nd Stanley Cup. All that’s left to sort out is the date etched beside “Carolina Hurricanes” on the world’s most famous trophy.

We don’t want next year to come because it means this year is over. There will be a time in the near future where, one way or another, that becomes a reality. We will look back then, but for now, it’s eyes forward. To Game 4, for sure. And then hopefully Game 5, and so on. The book on this season remains open, and there are people much smarter than me who can break down what the Canes need to do to climb back into this series. So we’ll deal with the dread of “next year” in the best way we know how. By fully embracing our excitement and optimism about what next year will bring, so the threat of ending this year doesn’t seem all that bad.

How bright is the Hurricanes future? So bright that it’s worth talking about while the team is still alive in the Eastern Conference Finals.

For starters, the Carolina Hurricanes were the youngest team in the NHL at the trade deadline, and decided to stay young by standing pat and rolling the dice on the players they already had in the middle of a hotly-contested playoff race that came down the final week of the season. Not only did the Hurricanes make the playoffs as the top wild card team, they would ultimately advance to where they are now … 8 wins away from the Stanley Cup after knocking off the defending champion Washington Capitals and sweeping the New York Islanders.

Similarly, divisional rival Columbus was also young at the trade deadline. Was. In a series of deadline moves, the Blue Jackets decided to hold on to unrestricted free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky and mortgage their future to acquire Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. While the move worked out to earn a wild card and a trip to the 2nd round, Columbus is left in a situation that feels much different than the Hurricanes. The core of the young Blue Jackets was decimated while Carolina’s remains intact and strong. Columbus can make moves to get good again, but they can’t make moves to be young and good … the position where the Hurricanes find themselves heading into 2019-20.

The Canes have been here before. Three times before, to be exact. But when comparing the four teams to reach the ECF since moving to North Carolina, one roster isn’t like others. In fact, if you take the median age from each of the three previous conference finalists, only three players on the 2018-19 roster would be older: Justin Williams, Jordan Staal, and Curtis McElhinney.

Looking ahead to next season, the Canes could be even younger. And better. The two biggest pieces of business to conduct this offseason are, one, to re-sign 22-year old superstar Sebastian Aho (they will), and two, to sort out the goalie situation. Aho becomes a restricted free agent the moment Carolina ends the 2019 season, but he wants to say here and the team wants to pay him whatever it takes to keep him here.

Both playoff goalies are unrestricted free agents and can sign wherever they like. Curtis McElhinney turns 36 next week, and though he’s played well this season, he was certainly viewed as a short-term rental to allow the Canes to fix the Scott Darling fiasco. The third goalie, Charlotte’s Alex Nedeljkovic, is a restricted free agent, and at 23 years old, he’s clearly the future of the position in Raleigh. The most simple scenario would be for the team to re-sign Petr Mrazek and Nedeljkovic, but the most likely scenario is Ned getting an extension and the Hurricanes to acquire his partner via free agency or a trade. More of both of those possibilities later.

Another interesting free agency discussion surrounds captain Justin Williams, who is also an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. The Canes will do whatever Williams wants, but the intrigue lies in exactly what that is. The two choices for Willy are likely retirement or a one-year deal to retire next season as he clearly returned to Carolina to retire here. In 2006, he was one of six players aged 25 or younger, but he’ll be 39 next season on a roster full of kids.

His job in Carolina has been twofold: to team a group of talented kids that professional hockey takes more than just talent, and to teach a first-year NHL coach – a model of intensity and relentless work – that it’s okay for talented kids to also be kids. With both projects complete and his legacy solidified, Williams’ off-season decision will come down to a choice of wardrobe. Will it be a #14 sweater, a coach’s suit and tie, or his signature off-ice sandals, shorts, and hoodie? Either way, he’s going to be around the team next season, and for many seasons after. And his decision will be made to benefit the Carolina Hurricanes first, and Justin Williams second.

My guess … the 38 year old Williams and 36 year old McElhinney won’t be around to skew the average age again next season.

Enough about who might not be in Raleigh next season, what about the players we know will be here barring any unexpected trades? Here’s a look at who is locked up for next season:

That’s the top six defensemen, five of the top six forwards (with soon-to-be 23 year old Sebastian Aho as the 6th once he’s signed), and a heart-and-soul guy in Jordan Martinook, all locked up, coming in at an average age of 26.7 years old.

Outside of Aho, Williams and the goalies, there are other household names that still need to be signed this offseason if they’re going to remain with the Carolina Hurricanes. Greg McKegg and Michael Ferland are both unrestricted free agents, and it’s hard to imagine the Hurricanes not letting both of them walk without putting up much of a fight. McKegg may be cheap enough for Carolina’s budget, but with what’s in the pipeline, it may not be in their best interest to keep McKegg. Like free agency and the trade market, more on the next wave of Hurricanes in a bit.

Ferland is certainly an interesting story. He went from being a player who Carolina couldn’t afford, to being a player who might not be able to afford leaving Carolina. Late-season injuries and a huge drop in production and impact have really hurt his chances in the open market, so it might be smart for Ferland to take a fair paycheck in a place he wants to be versus taking the risk of not having a lot of good options to choose from. I could see this going either way, but for the sake of argument, we will keep Ferland in the mix.

The restricted free agents, Saku Maenalanen, Brock McGinn and Haydn Fleury, are all players who have earned a chance to stay on in Carolina. McGinn is probably the least expendable as a penalty killer and a bottom 6 forward, and Maenalanen and Fleury are both young players who can provide depth at positions where the Canes already have some firepower. All three could certainly be back, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where McGinn and Fleury aren’t signed.

Even for Eastern Conference Finalists, a professional hockey team with zero turnover is probably not a successful hockey team in the long-term. There are four ways to “get different” … drafting players, calling up prospects, signing free agents, and making trades. Amazingly, all four methods don’t just afford Carolina a chance for changes. Each provides an immediate opportunity to get better in tangible ways. That’s a downright frightening thought for a team that’s already young, deep, and dangerous enough now as a contender that it almost feels silly to spend any energy focusing on the future.

The success of the Charlotte Checkers and the willingness of Hurricanes leadership to use their affiliate as both a breeding ground for future stars and a rest stop for players who are on the verge of breaking into the NHL on a full-time basis gives this franchise one of the most critical advantages in all of hockey. The ability to bridge the gap from injuries or inject new life into the lineup from a simple car trip up I-85 rather than going through the waiver wire or risky trades is as big of a key to the Canes success as anything else.

Of the names we recognize from crucial stints during the regular season and playoffs, Clark Bishop and  Patrick Brown are free agents at the end of this season. Unrestricted, it’s likely that Brown leaves. As a restricted free agent, Bishop will likely want to stay on as a possible replacement for a player like McKegg if he ends up leaving. Other familiar names like Gauthier, Geekie, Kuokkanen, Mattheos, Necas and Bean are all locked up through at least 2021 and will all have a shot to either make the roster at training camp (like breakout playoff star Warren Foegele did this season), or build their NHL resume through trips back and forth between Raleigh and Charlotte as needed. The future is bright for all of them, and if it’s not their time in 2019-20, it will be soon after.

While there won’t be any Andrei Svechnikov draft luck this year for the Hurricanes thanks to being one of the last four teams standing in the playoffs, the 2019 NHL Draft certainly won’t be short of intrigue for Carolina. Don Waddell will have a chance to pick three times between #28 and #37. Hurricanes drafted in that range in the past include Sebastian Aho and Justin Faulk, and if this draft yields anything close to the fortune of those two picks, Carolina is looking at bolstering its roster for years to come.

Or perhaps they don’t draft at all. The Canes are in a unique position with so many young players on the full roster, a group of outstanding prospects, and an enviable draft location that any or all could be bundled up into a blockbuster trade. But don’t sleep on the seemingly small trades as well. While Carolina arguably won the Calgary trade (Hanifin/Lindholm for Ferland/Hamilton) and mercilessly destroyed Minnesota in the Rask-for-Niederreiter trade, a quiet Marcus Kruger-for-Jodan Martinook trade had just as big of an impact on the season as the two headliner trades.

With so many moveable assets and a demonstrated ability to pull the trigger on sound, impactful trades, the sky is the limit for the Carolina Hurricanes if they choose to make any moves this off-season. Perhaps even more exciting, the Canes don’t even need to make trades to bolster the roster. With plenty of room in the budget for free agent signings, Carolina’s a player in the 2019 marketplace. With a re-energized fanbase, a well-respected coach, newfound recognition across the league, and tremendous weather, nature, and community, this franchise has bargaining chips that other clubs can’t compete with.

Again for emphasis, a team that experienced this much success this season should not have the combination of youth, financial flexibility, and pipeline fertility that the Carolina Hurricanes have. It’s too lazy to say that this team is playing with house money because that phrase implies that success is defined as anything that doesn’t end up being less than you started with. This team isn’t exceeding expectations. They are establishing The Expectation.

This is uncharted water for professional teams in North Carolina. We’re used to hoping for the opportunity to steal an occasional championship from the likes of the Golden State Warriors and New England Patriots. This Carolina Hurricanes team, in a vacuum, is exactly that. But the Carolina Hurricanes, as an organization, have an opportunity to become the Warriors or Patriots. If we take the opportunity that’s there for us … if you think hockey hates us now, just you wait.