Another early NHL offseason begins for Carolina Hurricanes

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) The Carolina Hurricanes have begun yet another early offseason.

The owners of the NHL's longest active playoff drought - now at eight years and counting - cleaned out their lockers Monday with a belief that they're getting closer to finally getting back to the postseason.

''Certainly I would think that anything but the playoffs next year, we wouldn't be satisfied with,'' veteran goalie Cam Ward said. ''If we could have put it together for a whole season, we wouldn't be talking to you today - we'd be getting ready for Round 1'' of the playoffs.

When the Hurricanes look back on this season, they'll remember several high points - both on and off the ice - but also a string of missed opportunities that prevented them from reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

Carolina finished with 87 points, eight points behind Toronto in the chase for the final wild-card berth. That total was buoyed by a late string in which the Hurricanes earned at least one point in a franchise-record 13 straight games, going 9-0-4 in that stretch to make a last-gasp push up the standings.

That's their most points since the 2010-11 team had 91 and fell two points shy of the postseason.

But it still wasn't enough. Not in a division that had three of the top four teams in the league. - Washington (118 points), Pittsburgh (111) and Columbus (108).

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Some things to remember about the Hurricanes' 2016-17 season:

WHY ARE THEY OUT? The Hurricanes will lament an untimely five-game losing streak in late January in which they were outscored 23-5 to drop from the cusp of playoff contention. Another 0-4-1 stretch in late February didn't help, and before their they were in last place in the East. They also struggled to beat some of the league's weaker teams, going just 2-4-2 against the four worst teams in the Western Conference - including an ugly 0-1-1 finish against a Colorado team that earned a league-fewest 48 points. ''We don't necessarily have to be in first place, but you can't be hanging around the bottom for too long and expect to make a push and get back into it,'' defenseman Justin Faulk said.

LEADERSHIP: The Hurricanes have chosen not to select a captain ever since they traded Eric Staal in February 2016, instead relying on a rotation of alternate captains. In hindsight, maybe one of the league's youngest teams could have used a single voice of leadership in the dressing room.

BRIGHT SPOTS: There were some bright spots, though: 24-year-old forward Jeff Skinner scored a career-high 37 goals and matched a career best with 63 points while further establishing himself as the team's most dangerous offensive player. Sebastian Aho was third among league rookies with 24 goals. And a young defensive core led by Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce took some steps forward in their second seasons in the league. ''It's funny how these young kids in this organization, they're so young but they're so mature for their age,'' Ward said.

HEART-WARMERS: Two lasting memories had little to do with wins and losses. Equipment manager Jorge Alves, pressed into duty as the emergency goalie when Eddie Lack became ill, wound up living a dream by playing the final 7.6 seconds of a game at Tampa Bay in January. And forward Bryan Bickell, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with Chicago who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, fought his way back to the NHL in the final week before deciding to retire at season's end. His career ended with a goal in the shootout Sunday night at Philadelphia.

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