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Five pressing questions for the Canes looking to next season

Canes’ Justin Williams: ‘I didn’t think it would be done quite like this’

The Canes' Justin Williams reflects on the season after the Boston Bruins eliminated the Carolina Hurricanes in game four of the Eastern Conference finals at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Thursday, May 16, 2019.
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The Canes' Justin Williams reflects on the season after the Boston Bruins eliminated the Carolina Hurricanes in game four of the Eastern Conference finals at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Thursday, May 16, 2019.

It’s safe to say the Carolina Hurricanes overachieved this past season, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and reaching the Eastern Conference finals. There was a lot to like.

But what about next year? Here are five pressing questions heading into the offseason:

Does the captain return?

The way Justin Williams lingered in the Canes’ locker room Thursday after a final loss to the Boston Bruins, his pads still on, his kids by his side and a tear or two in his eyes, one had to wonder if that might be his last game.

A lot was asked of Williams this season in terms of leadership and production and he delivered. At 37, he had 23 goals and 30 assists, played all 82 games and was a steadying presence in the locker room and on the ice.

Williams’ two-year contract had a cap hit of $4.5 million, which turned out to be a very good investment by the Canes. A one-year contract, at roughly the same price, would give Williams the option to play another season and then see where he stands.

“I know how much he’s put into this and I know there’s only so much gas in the tank,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour recently said. “I’m going to make sure he takes a couple of months before he makes a decision.”

How much will Aho be paid?

The Finnish center -- and he was a center this season -- is the Canes’ most dynamic forward and a face-of-the-franchise kind of player. He had a career high 30 goals and 53 assists this season, did not miss a game, and was selected for the NHL All-Star Game.

Canes general manager Don Waddell said in late October that a new long-term contract could be signed before the season ended, noting the two sides were not wide apart on term and price (“There’s not a crazy difference,” he said.) Waddell later said both sides had agreed to wait until after the season to finish negotiations, allowing Aho to focus only on hockey.

Teuvo Teravainen did sign a new extension in January, the Finnish forward getting a five-year deal with an annual cap hit of $5.4 million.

As for Aho, consider that center Evgeny Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals signed an eight-year, $62.4 million contract in July 2017, an annual average value of $7.8 million. Would a comparable contract be unreasonable for Aho?

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Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho (20) reacts as time expires and the Hurricanes fall 2-1 to the Boston Bruins in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday, May 14, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

What about the goalies?

Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney both will become unrestricted free agents on July 1, and odds are only one might be re-signed before free agency begins. The Canes picked up both at bargain prices for this season -- Mrazek, signed as a free agent, had a one-year, $1.5 million contract and McElhinney’s cap hit was $850,000 after being claimed on waivers in October from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

One option would be to sign Mrazek, 27, whose strong play down the stretch of the regular season helped the Canes claw their way into the playoffs. Alex Nedeljkovic, the AHL goaltender of the year with the Charlotte Checkers, would be given the chance of becoming Mrazek’s backup next season. That would mean cutting ties with McElhinney, who turns 36 on May 23 and likely would be signed by another team if a UFA on July 1.

Scott Darling is still owed $8.3 million over the next two seasons but could be bought out by the team.

Ferland or McKegg, both, neither?

Like the goalies, forwards Micheal Ferland and Greg McKegg will be UFAs and only one could return.

Ferland, obtained in the June 2018 trade with the Calgary Flames, had a $1.75 million cap hit and had decent numbers for the Canes -- 17 goals and 23 assists in 71 games -- while adding some needed pop to the lineup. But injuries were an issue and he did not score in the last 17 regular-season games he played or in the playoffs.

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Carolina’s Micheal Ferland (79) checks Boston’s Charlie Coyle (13) during the first period of the Carolina Hurricanes’ game against the Boston Bruins in game three of the Eastern Conference finals at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Tuesday, May 14, 2019. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Ferland, 27, had a cryptic tweet this week: “Thanks for everything raleigh!! Absolutely loved it here!!” Was that a goodbye message? It could be Ferland and the Canes can’t reach an agreeable contract price and he will sign with another team.

McKegg, 26, proved to be a versatile forward once recalled Jan. 4 from the Checkers, playing 41 games with the Canes. A very solid player who can be used at center or the wing, he had a $715,000 contract and was a noticeable player during the playoffs. One has to think the Canes will want him back.

Who else is leaving the Canes?

With a host of expiring contracts, including those of longtime TV play-by-play man John Forslund and analyst Tripp Tracy, there could be another offseason shakeup.

It’s hard to imagine Canes telecasts without Forslund and Tracy, who have been side-by-side in the booth for 20 years and are a large part of the Hurricanes brand. Then again, the same can be said for Chuck Kaiton, long the radio voice of the team whose contract expired last year and was not re-signed.

What about the front office? The scouting staffs? The equipment staff, together so long? There are so many decisions for team owner Tom Dundon and Waddell, the president and general manager, to decide.

In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.
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