The coroner is in. Let us examine the aftermath of the Carolina Hurricanes.
The skinny: It wasn’t supposed to end like this for the Hurricanes. A roster loaded with young talent and the revivals of several players was set to accomplish great things. The defense continued to be one of the deepest in the entire NHL. An amazing rookie campaign from Alex Nedeljkovic turned goaltending from a weakness to a strength practically overnight. Weathering an early challenge from the Nashville Predators should have been a precursor for playoff success. However, the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning showed the young team how difficult of a grind the playoffs truly are.
It was another season of learning for the Hurricanes, who always appear to be on the right track but come up just short in the postseason. Two years ago, the Bruins put an end to a magical run to the Conference Finals. The Bruins would do the same the following year, dominating their younger rivals in the first round. This year, it was the Lightning’s turn to humble the Central Division winner. Where did it go wrong for the Hurricanes this time? Let’s present the evidence…
Injuries: The second line of the Hurricanes was ravaged by injuries during this series, as Nino Niederreiter and Vincent Trocheck all missed games. Warren Foegele was also injured in Game 3 and missed Game 5 after gutting out Game 4. The three forwards combined for 47 goals and 97 points during the regular season, as well as four goals during these playoffs. Their contributions were sorely missed, as the Hurricanes struggled to get anything going consistently on offense against an all-world goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy. While it’s unclear if the trio would have reversed Carolina’s fortunes, they would have likely made the series closer than it was.
Penalty kill: Similar to their victory over the Florida Panthers, the Lightning were able to capitalize on mistakes that put the Hurricanes in the penalty box. Out of 16 Carolina penalties, they were only able to succeed at killing nine of them. The power play was responsible for half of Tampa Bay’s goals in this series. Nikita Kucherov, in particular, was dominant with the man advantage, scoring six of his seven points in the series on the power play. A team with elite offensive talent and gameplanning is absolutely deadly if given the opportunity, and the Hurricanes gave away far too many to find success.
Game 4: This was the moment the Hurricanes’ season ended. With a chance to steal two games in Tampa Bay and go back to Raleigh with an even series, the Hurricanes went in firing on all cylinders. In a span of eight minutes in the second period, the Hurricanes outscored the Lightning 4-1 and seemed like they were heading back into the series. Unfortunately, the Lightning broke through and scored three times in five minutes to close out the period, including two power-play tallies. Facing a 5-4 deficit in such a fashion, the Hurricanes looked gassed in the third and let go of a second Nikita Kucherov goal that would effectively push the game out of reach. A great opportunity for the Hurricanes was effectively squandered, and it spelled the end for them in this series.
The crystal ball: The Hurricanes still have a good core intact, and they enter the offseason with the fifth-most cap space in the league. Even after they resign key restricted free agents like Nedeljkovic and Andrei Svechnikov, that will still leave the Hurricanes with plenty of money to play around with. They can add to that if the Seattle Kraken select Brady Skjei in the expansion draft, which wouldn’t be too bad of a loss for the Hurricanes, given their depth on defense. They also cleared another question by extending Jack Adams Award-winning coach Rod Brind’Amour, ensuring that most of Carolina’s key contributors this season are still here.
The real question is going to be regarding unrestricted free agent Dougie Hamilton. His offensive contributions among defensemen are unmatched, and he will likely command a deal very similar to the one Alex Pietrangelo signed just this past offseason. However, it’s unlikely that contract will come from the Hurricanes, who have given Hamilton permission to speak to other teams to open up sign-and-trade possibilities. The idea of it is good on the Hurricanes: it allows them to let their big-ticket free agent leave on their terms instead of leaving for nothing. Defensive-needy teams like Winnipeg, Chicago, and Philadelphia would be wise to at least get some feelers out and see what it would take to bring Hamilton over to their teams.
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