Carolina Hurricanes center Elias Lindholm (16) is checked by Florida Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov (7) during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, April 9, 2016, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Alan Diaz
April 10, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) At times this season - and even after trading one of the best players in club history - the Carolina Hurricanes looked like a playoff team again.

Just not often enough to actually get into the playoffs.

The Hurricanes wrapped things up Saturday night with a 5-2 loss at Florida, closing with three losses in four games and finishing with a 35-31-16 record.

They played their best hockey of the year in the immediate aftermath of the most significant development of the season: The deadline trade that sent captain and franchise-face Eric Staal to the New York Rangers.

Carolina earned points in 12 of its next 14 games to mount a last-gasp push for a playoff berth, and to the Hurricanes' credit, they weren't officially eliminated until about a week remained in the season.

The departure of Staal - along with the exits of winger Kris Versteeg and defenseman John-Michael Liles - forced the numerous young players on the roster to grow up in a hurry.

''I felt like we had a lot of young guys stepping up,'' goalie Eddie Lack said. ''I felt like we were alive (for the playoffs) for a long time.''

Now the challenge is to carry the momentum of that strong end-of-season surge into the offseason and into next season - when it seems reasonable to expect a playoff berth.

Carolina hasn't made the postseason since 2009 - at seven years and counting, the longest active drought among Eastern Conference teams.

But with a young defensive corps maturing seemingly with each game and some offensive players who are figuring out how to best produce goals, the Hurricanes have some tangible signs that general manager Ron Francis' rebuilding project is on the right track.

Former rookie of the year Jeff Skinner took over the mantle of leadership in Staal's departure, leading the team with 28 goals and 51 points. They'll count on that type of production when things pick back up in the fall.

''It's too tough of a league to be able to score without having five guys on the same page and five guys working together,'' he said.

There are plenty of things to keep an eye on between now and when training camp opens in September.

The Staal trade left Ward as the last remaining link to either of the team's last two playoff appearances - and the highest-paid player remaining with the team. His six-year contract that paid him $6.8 million this season is up, and a lingering question is whether the Hurricanes will let him leave when free agency starts in July or bring him back at a lower cost.

They should have some cash to toss around. They've only got about $39 million committed for next season, and that figure includes the buyout money due to Alexander Semin.

Commissioner Gary Bettman has projected the salary cap next year could rise to about $74 million which means the floor would be about $58 million.

Francis also figures to be active on draft day. He has 11 picks in the seven-round draft, including at least two in each of the first three rounds, so he could either stockpile more young talent or flip some of those picks for players.

The common theme of the deadline trades was moving pending unrestricted free agents in exchange for draft picks. That means the Hurricanes only have a handful of potential unrestricted free agents to negotiate with, including by Ward. Among the others whose deals also are up: forwards Riley Nash, Chris Terry, Brad Malone and Nathan Gerbe.

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Follow Joedy McCreary at http://twitter.com/joedyap. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/joedy-mccreary

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