Dethroned Stanley Cup champion Hurricanes look to next season

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After becoming just the third team to win the Cup and then miss the playoffs the next season, last year's champions now have five long months to rest, recover and stew over what went wrong.

"We all think that we have the pieces in here and the players in here, the personnel in here, to do better than we did," defenceman Mike Commodore said. "That's why it's disappointing. It's tough. If you have to take anything positive from it, hopefully guys use this disappointment to make them work a little harder in the summer and that will lead to bigger and better things next year."

The Hurricanes (40-34-8) closed their sour season Saturday night with a too-little, too-late 5-4 overtime victory over Florida. It was just the kind of come-from-behind win that was common - expected, almost - during Carolina's Cup run a year ago.

Those wins largely were absent this time - from the beginning of the season, when they opened with four straight losses, all the way through the end. With the Hurricanes' fading playoff hopes in the balance, they lost four of five and fell out of the post-season chase.

"Last year, there was a lot of winning, and we were way out in front, and that creates fun," coach Peter Laviolette said. "The best way to describe it is, it seemed like we were chasing that (this) whole year. We were chasing that fun, and chasing that win, and could never really get in front of it or get a hold of it. We kept trying but we were not able to stay on top of that."

The exhilaration of winning the franchise's first Cup - and all those enjoyable distractions that accompany a title - took a toll this season, with the quick turnaround keeping several key players from fully healing before the championship banner was raised and the first puck was dropped.

Left-winger Cory Stillman and defenceman Frantisek Kaberle missed multiple months after off-season shoulder operations. Defenceman Bret Hedican had off-season operations on his hip and hand, then had his season cut short with a hip problem.

In all, the Hurricanes lost 250 man-games to injury, their third-highest total since moving from Hartford in 1997.

"I'm not going to sit around and speculate on 'What if?"' defenceman David Tanabe said. "You show up every day, you put it all on the line every night. That's what you do and you live with it, but (the injuries are) just a result of our game. I think it's in the effort. I think it's in just showing up and giving it everything. But I can't sit there and dwell on what-ifs and what could have been and what should have been. It is what it is."

Now the key question is what the Hurricanes will look like when camp opens in September.

Among the big-name players who are unrestricted free agents are leading scorer Ray Whitney - whom local writers selected team MVP after his 83-point season - and right-winger Scott Walker. Retirement is a possibility for aging defencemen Glen Wesley and Hedican, both injured at season's end.

Fifteen players are under contract for next season, including all-star forwards Eric Staal and Justin Williams, captain Rod Brind'Amour and six defencemen. Goalie Cam Ward, last year's Conn Smythe Trophy winner, is a restricted free agent.

"You're going to see a different team - not necessarily personnel, but a different team come ready and hungry to play," Stillman said.

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