Hit hard by injuries, the Carolina Hurricanes missed the playoffs for the second straight season following their 2006 Stanley Cup win.
Off-Season Game Plan examines Carolina's talented roster and what they could do to get back into the postseason.
"It's an empty pit-woulda, coulda, shoulda's," coach Peter Laviolette told reporters at season's end. "It's a very difficult pill to swallow for everybody."
Looking at the crucial players who missed time due to injury -- most notably, Ray Whitney (16 games), Rod Brind'Amour (23 games), Matt Cullen (23 games), Scott Walker (24 games) and Justin Williams (45 games) -- it's easy enough to project a healthier Hurricanes team into the playoffs.
However, Carolina can't only attribute their shortfall to injuries as they didn't have a capable power play quarterback defenceman until they traded for Joe Corvo in February and addressing that glaring need sooner could have easily been enough to make up the two points to get into the playoffs.
Or, playing in the worst division in hockey, the 'Canes could have secured one more win in the final couple of weeks of the season when facing their divisional rivals.
That's what happens when there is such a small difference between making the playoffs and missing out; any number of small factors could make the difference.
It's up to the management to prepare contingency plans so that they can deal with factors like injuries and slumps and still make the playoffs and that's the challenge that falls on the Hurricanes this summer, because the core is still talented enough for the 'Canes to be playoff contenders.
Jim Rutherford/Peter Laviolette
Top Prospects: Brandon Sutter, Drayson Bowman, Bobby Hughes
While Eric Staal is still not back to the 100-point form that he showed in 2005-2006, his 82-point season was a good rebound campaign and got the 23-year-old back on the right path to being a franchise centre. More improvement in his own end, and in the face-off circle, is required before Staal can be considered a complete player.
Power forward Erik Cole has stretches when he's an impact player, but 51 points doesn't seem like enough return for his skill set. His upside alone would ensure numerous suitors if the Hurricanes choose to shop Cole in an effort to solidify the defence.
Few players are as effective with the man advantage as veteran Ray Whitney, who is coming off a third straight season with at least 30 power play points. Whitney's 36 now, but his Carolina years (199 points in 210 games over three seasons) have been the most effective of his career.
Do-everything centre Rod Brind'Amour missed the last quarter of the season with a torn ACL, but the 37-year-old fitness freak will be ready to go when the puck drops next season. Brind'Amour plays in all situations and has been a resurgent offensive performer since the lockout.
Another Hurricane shelved for a good portion of the season by a knee injury, Justin Williams was coming off back-to-back 30-goal seasons. Even though he was off that pace when he got hurt, the 26-year-old is a quality scoring winger.
Matt Cullen tied his career high with 49 points, despite playing only 59 games, and the two-way centre is at his best in Carolina as a key member on the power play in addition to a checking role.
Feisty Scott Walker only played 58 games, but he seemed re-invigorated as he racked up 115 penalty minutes, the first time topping the century mark since 1998-1999. Walker's a solid third-liner who knows what to do around the net when given the chance.
After wasting away in Montreal and Chicago for a season-and-a-half, Sergei Samsonov salvaged his career with 32 points in 38 games for Carolina, which was all well and good until the 'Canes signed him to a three-year contract extension. Now, the 'Canes have to hope that half season is an indicator that 29-year-old Samsonov is still capable of playing a regular role on a scoring line.
Power play and shootout specialist Jeff Hamilton couldn't stick in a regular role and was eventually demoted to the AHL. Given Carolina's depth up front, he may not be able to crack the roster next season either.
Chad LaRose brings a high-energy game and injuries afforded him more of an opportunity last season and he contributed a little more offensively. He's a bargain depth forward.
While Tuomo Ruutu was highly-touted before he entered the NHL in 2003-2004, he's no longer that impressive combination of skill and aggressiveness and his paycheque is probably higher than it should be for a player best suited to a third-line checking role.
Injuries conspired to make Patrick Eaves' third NHL season a virtual write-off, the 24-year-old winger will likely get an opportunity next season to prove that he can be a legitimate 20-goal scorer. If he can't, then Eaves will need to utilize his speed in a checking role if he's going to hold onto a regular spot.
The 'Canes forward units are top-heavy, so they could look to the free agent market to improve their grit and depth up front. Maybe Washington's Matt Bradley, San Jose's Pat Rissmiller or Pittsburgh's Adam Hall could be among those that would help on the fourth line and it probably wouldn't hurt to make sure an enforcer is at least on the roster.
Top Prospects: Jamie McBain, Kyle Lawson, Brett Carson
The addition of Joe Corvo from Ottawa addressed Carolina's most glaring need, that of the mobile, puck-moving power play defenceman. While the 30-year-old runs hot and cold, at times alternating between dynamic offensive plays and glaring defensive gaffes, he was an excellent fit in Carolina, finishing with 21 points (13 on the power play) in the final 23 games of the season. The 'Canes could really use that kind of production over a full season.
Frantisek Kaberle got off to a terrible start to the season and, even with an improved finish, his production (zero goals, 22 points in 80 games) was at the lowest rate of his career. The 34-year-old needs to have a bounceback season in 2008-2009.
Casey Borer got a taste of NHL action late in the season and acquitted himself well enough that he'll have a shot with the big club in the fall. His game isn't flashy, by any means, but his steadiness could work in a depth role.
Concussion woes plagued David Tanabe, limiting him to just 18 games, and that could be the beginning of the end for the 1999 first-round pick who never really lived up to expectations and has topped 60 games just once in the last four seaons.
Niclas Wallin can be a useful part of the group, but in a limited role, as last year's team-worst minus-18 indicates he was probably getting too much action at times, particularly in the first half of the season.
German blueliner Dennis Seidenberg has yet to play more than 63 games in any of his five NHL seasons, but he was one of Carolina's best defencemen in the 47 games he played in 2007-2008. He was miscast in a power play role, a situation that was dictated more by circumstances than any offensive wizardry Seidenberg has shown, but he is a good defensive defenceman who can make a solid first pass.
Tim Gleason plays with an edge to his game and his physical presence is most welcome on a Carolina defence that isn't always the most difficult to play against.
To that end, prospect Tim Conboy adds a dose of nastiness to the Hurricanes blueline and he showed some spark late in the year. The 26-year-old is going to have to compete for a depth role, but his toughness may be worth having on hand.
Even though he's 37, smooth-skating Bret Hedican can still be an effective defenceman and he paced the Hurricanes with a plus-17 rating in 2007-2008. Hedican played well and played quite a bit for the 'Canes, but it may be time for an improvement at the top end of the defensive depth chart.
39-year-old Glen Wesley has played nearly 1500 NHL games and has been steady late in his career, but he may be ready to call it a career.
With a need for at least a couple of blueliners then, the 'Canes can look to trade an excess forward for a defenceman or may consider the likes of free agents Ron Hainsey, Michal Rozsival, Brad Stuart or Paul Mara as possible puck-moving additons, while more defensive-minded vets like Aaron Miller or Mark Eaton may be good depth signings.
Free Agent Goaltender
Top Prospect: Justin Peters
Cam Ward improved in his third NHL season, though a midseason slump hurt his overall numbers. With 129 games played over the last two seasons, Ward has established that he's capable of handling a starter's workload, but now it's up to the 24-year-old to establish his consistency over the entire season.
While Ward can handle a lot of action, the Hurricanes need to improve in the backup goaltender department. Veteran John Grahame is coming off a poor season and, as an unrestricted free agent, there's little incentive for the 'Canes to bring him back.
A couple of veteran free agents, Boston's Alex Auld and Chicago's Patrick Lalime, are a couple of options as guys that could come in for at least 20 starts and provide more stability at the position.
14th - Kyle Beach, Zac Boychuk, Luca Sbisa, Michael del Zotto
The Hurricanes have approximately $39-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: One top four defenceman, one depth defenceman
What I said the Hurricanes needed last year: Two top nine forwards, one top four defenceman
Who did they add? Matt Cullen, Jeff Hamilton
Erik Cole, Justin Williams
Scott Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org