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What Carolina Hurricanes Need To Do To Join NHL’s Elite

The Carolina Hurricanes won the make-shift Central Division during the COVID-19-shortened NHL regular season.

They racked up 80 points, two shy of the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights for the most in the league standings. They raised expectations higher than they’ve been in the three seasons they’ve qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs after missing them for nine straight seasons.

But strong regular seasons and playoff berths do not make an organization elite — and the Hurricanes learned that hard truth again this season, capped by their 2-0 loss to Tampa Bay on Tuesday. The defending Cup-champion Lightning eliminated Carolina in five games in the second round of the postseason.

Over the past three playoffs, the Hurricanes are 1-12 against Tampa Bay and Boston (which swept the Hurricanes to win the Eastern Conference title in 2019) and 0-5 at home against those two NHL powerhouses.

Even with little time to digest his club’s latest loss, Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour was able to assess the reality his team is facing.

“I think my biggest takeaway is ‘how do we get better?’ And we were good all year. But, when you get up against the best, that’s a great comparison,” Brind’Amour said.

The Hurricanes have made hockey relevant again in Raleigh. They’ve won three best-of-7 series in three years and also won a best-of-5 preliminary series in the 2020 bubble. Now it’s up to owner Tom Dundon and general manager Don Waddell to act the way elite teams do off the ice to keep the Hurricanes on track to the point where they might be able to get past the likes of Boston and Tampa Bay.

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It starts with keeping the core together, including defenseman Dougie Hamilton. The former Boston first-round pick, who’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, was instrumental in the Hurricanes soaring to the top of the standings this season with 42 points in 55 games. Although his defensive game sometimes elicits a head scratch, he has improved and would be difficult to replace even among the enviable Carolina defense group that’s also led by Jacob Slavin and Brett Pesce.

, What Carolina Hurricanes Need To Do To Join NHL’s Elite, The Nzuchi News Forbes

If Sebastian Aho, the Hurricanes’ best all-around player and highest-paid at $8.46 million per season, is the benchmark, Carolina should be able to bring back Hamilton at something close to that number if they’re willing to grant the 27-year-old the security of a deal of six or more years. That deal might not look great in year five, six (or especially, potentially, seven), but it’s the type of contract teams that want to challenge for the Cup have to live with.

Every elite team has depth. The Hurricanes have to decide if UFAs Brock McGinn, Jordan Martinook and Jani Hakanpaa are capable of being part of a championship supporting cast. If not, they need to be replaced with more players that have championship experience and undying grit, the type of determination that you see in the scars and bruises on every Cup-winning player.

And then there’s the goaltending. Alex Nedeljkovic had a great rookie season (.932 save percentage in 23 games) and is a finalist for the Calder Trophy. He was benched for Game 3 and 4 against Tampa Bay before returning to the net in Game 5. He finished the Lightning series with a .914 save percentage; Petr Mrazek had an .873 in two games against Tampa Bay. They were outplayed by the goalie Brind’Amour called the “best in the world,” Andrei Vasilevskiy.

There won’t be a Vasilevskiy available this summer, but they can find a better No. 1A goalie to pair with Nedeljkovic, either in free agency of via trade. Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne and Frederik Andersen highlight the UFA class. Jonathan Quick, although past his due date as a No. 1, could be available in a trade and might thrive in a part-time role behind a defense corps like Carolina’s.

CapFriendly.com pegs the Hurricanes for nearly $28 million in cap space. That’s more than enough to retain Hamilton, upgrade the goalie position and fill out the supporting cast, possibly with another star to go along with Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov up front.

Just as important as the players is the coach — Brind’Amour is a free agent as well.

“I hope so,” he said in response to a question about whether he’s be behind Carolina’s bench next season.

Even with all the positives, Aho wasn’t ready to call this 2020-21 season a step forward for the Hurricanes, saying, “it’s not a step forward because we didn’t get the ultimate goal.”

That next step isn’t that far away as long as the Hurricanes follow the blueprint drawn up by the elite teams that have knocked them out of the postseason the past three years.

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