Playoff trips have Hurricanes aiming for growth, deeper run

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes have moved past a long playoff drought and look ready to remain a postseason fixture. They just have to figure out what changes will carry them even farther.

”We’re not talking about this team just making playoffs anymore,” president and general manager Don Waddell said Monday. ”We’re talking about how we’re going to build a team to go deeper in the playoffs and eventually get to where all of our goals are – and that’s winning the Stanley Cup.”

The Hurricanes have a young core under contract – highlighted by Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov – and quality defenseman depth behind Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin. That group got Carolina to the Eastern Conference finals in 2019 after a nine-year postseason drought, followed by this year’s playoff return in Toronto.

But they lost both years to the Boston Bruins, first in a 2019 sweep and then in a five-game first-round series that ended last week.

Now it’s about balancing how to improve the team while sticking to plans that have brought the franchise to back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time since 2001-02.

Coach Rod Brind’Amour is counting on maturing players learning how to elevate their play against a veteran opponent like Boston, this year’s Presidents’ Trophy winner with a league-best 100 regular-season points.

A year earlier, the Bruins won three times in the four-game sweep by at least three goals. This time, four of the five games were decided by one goal.

”We definitely closed the gap there, it certainly felt different this year than last year playing them,” Brind’Amour said, adding: ”As long as we learn from that, that experience will be valuable moving forward.”

Some things to watch for during the Hurricanes’ offseason:

WILLIAMS’ FUTURE

Justin Williams provided veteran leadership in both playoff pushes, including when the 38-year-old rejoined the team on a one-year deal after sitting out the first half of this season. But it’s unclear whether the three-time Cup champion – including with Carolina in 2006 – will return.

Brind’Amour said he ”can’t tell you one way or the other” and that Williams ”certainly didn’t let on to what he’s thinking” after the Game 5 loss.

INJURY UPDATES

The Hurricanes didn’t play long enough in Toronto to buy time for defenseman Brett Pesce to return from March shoulder surgery expected to sideline him roughly six months. Waddell said Pesce remains ”right on target” and should be ”ready to roll” next season.

Additionally, Waddell said Andrei Svechnikov should be fine. The 20-year-old former No. 2 overall draft pick from 2018 missed the last two games after going down late in Game 3 when his right leg twisted awkwardly beneath him as he fell while jostling with Zdeno Chara for position.

But Waddell said Svechnikov’s injury was a high ankle sprain, with no additional injury detected by X-rays and an MRI.

FREE AGENTS

The Hurricanes have restricted free agents in winger Warren Foegele and defenseman Haydn Fleury, both 24 years old and 2014 draft picks by the team. Waddell said he ”fully” expects to reach deals for both.

Carolina’s unrestricted free agents include Justin Williams and three defensemen: Joel Edmundson, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Sami Vatanen – who was acquired from New Jersey at the February trade deadline.

IN GOAL

The Hurricanes rotated Petr Mrazek and James Reimer in net during the Bruins series as well as during a three-game sweep against the New York Rangers in a best-of-5 qualifying series. Both are under contract through next season.

PURSUING A FIRST

The franchise hasn’t made three straight playoff trips since relocating to North Carolina in 1997 from Hartford, Connecticut.

”One thing you want to be careful of is always chasing something that might not be there,” Waddell said. ”We’ve got a good bunch of guys here. . If we can upgrade our team at any position, we certainly will look at that. But we’re not out here saying we’ve got to make wholesale changes with our lineup.”