The Carolina Hurricanes' season came to an abrupt end Wednesday night in Florida, as the Panthers eliminated them from Stanley Cup playoff competition by sweeping them in the Eastern Conference final.
A Carolina team that began with such promise getting swept by the Panthers leads to the conversation about the Hurricanes’ short-term and long-term prospects.
First, the bad news: Carolina has 13 UFAs to make decisions on, as well as three RFAs. Now, the better news: Canes GM Don Waddell has more than $24.1 million in salary cap space, with 17 players under contract for the 2023-24 campaign, according to CapFriendly. As a result, Carolina can be a major mover-and-shaker via free agency and trades this off-season.
But what should the Hurricanes do to their roster this summer? Let’s identify a few areas that should be a priority for Waddell and Hurricanes brass.
1. Get bigger and better up front. The Canes were not especially big and fearsome at forward this season. Yes, their speed was their bread and butter, but they lack size – seven of their current top 12 forwards are six-foot or shorter. Compare that to Carolina’s defense corps (which we’ll get to in a moment), and you see there’s a notable imbalance from a height perspective.
Who could the Hurricanes’ sights be set on in free agency? Let’s start with retaining one of their own UFAs in Jordan Staal. The 34-year-old netted 17 goals, and his family situation in Raleigh almost assuredly will mean he returns but in a discounted financial capacity; Stall earned $6 million this past season, but he can still get a two-to-three-year contract at a reduced rate of pay.
After that, perhaps Tyler Bertuzzi and/or James van Riemsdyk become options for Carolina. The former is coming off a strong post-season with Boston (five goals and 10 points in seven games), while the latter is a big-bodied net-front presence who can finish offensive plays up close and tight. Regardless, whoever comes in to form the Hurricanes’ bottom-six forward unit is going to be leaned on by Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour to give his top six forwards a bit of a break throughout next season.
2. Do not touch the defense corps. As mentioned, the Hurricanes’ defense corps has all kinds of size – of their current top six defensemen, five are at least 6-foot-1, and four of them are 6-foot-3 or taller. Carolina’s top four blueliners make up one of the NHL’s best defense corps, and sometimes, it’s not a good idea to tweak with something that’s been responsible for so much of a team’s golden days in the back end. Waddell knows better than to make change for the sake of change.
We’re not suggesting the Hurricanes’ defense didn’t share in the blame for their role in Florida’s series win. We are suggesting that there are very few defenders the Canes can acquire that would make for an easy trade or free-agency acquisition.
3. Decide about your goaltending – for the short-and-long term. Waddell currently has just one goalie – Pyotr Kochetkov and his 27 NHL regular-season games under his belt – under contract for next season. Both veteran goaltender Frederik Andersen and veteran backup Antti Raanta are UFAs this summer, and if one of them gets a bump in pay – we'd say that would be Andersen, who was strong this spring in nine playoff appearances – the other one will almost assuredly move on.
Could the Canes make a long-term agreement with Andersen and let Raanta fade off into the sunset? We believe that’s the most likely scenario, although in this case, “long-term” should be understood as a three-to-four-year deal at most for Andersen. Despite Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky playing at his peak this spring, nobody in the league has the stomach to sign a goalie for five years or longer. Ask the Edmonton Oilers how they feel now about Jack Campbell’s job, and if their answer is anything other than dripping with regret, they’re simply not telling the truth.
The Hurricanes had goalie issues off and on throughout the regular season. It’s been nice for coach Rod Brind’Amour to have three choices on who to play in net on any given night, but the salary cap is likely to squeeze that number to two by next season’s training camp.