When this lockout-shortened season began, Carolina looked like a possible playoff contender. Unfortunately, despite a 15-9-1 start, that's not how it worked out.
Giving up five goals in the third period, the Canes ended their season in Pittsburgh on Saturday night with a brutal 8-3 loss. The Canes, sitting 13th in the Eastern Conference, are missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
Injuries were a big factor in the Carolina's performance this year.
"It's like we were going up the mountain one side, and then came right down the other," coach Kirk Muller told the News & Observer. "Once we hit our injuries we just were not able to get points in games where we actually played better than our opponents. It's not excuses. It's reality."
Key players like Ruutu, Justin Faulk, and Joni Pitkanen missed considerable parts of the season. Losing goaltender Cam Ward in early March, however, was probably the team's biggest setback in terms of injuries.
Regardless, like with any team who doesn't make the playoffs, Carolina will see changes in the off-season.
"This is honestly one of first times I've been involved with a team not making the playoffs where you feel really optimistic about it," Muller said. "Some teams are in situations where they have to disrupt the whole nucleus. Our nucleus is good. We just have to make the right decisions in the summer."
While the nucleus may stay the same, the Canes have their work cut out for them. Realignment will make things much harder for Carolina. Next season, the team will leave what is arguably the weakest division for a new eight-team division that includes the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Rangers and the Washington Capitals.
"There will be physical games. They're big teams," Muller told the paper. "I think it's important for us as an organization and looking at the opponents we will face, to make decisions based on how we feel we can improve to play against them."
In the past few weeks, GM Jim Rutherford has made it clear that defense will be the team's primary concern during the off-season. Allowing 3.31 goals per game, the Canes finished the season only ahead of the Florida Panthers.
Furthermore, Carolina has a group a pending unrestricted free agents to think about.
Forwards Chad LaRose and Tim Brent, defensemen Joe Corvo, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Bobby Sanguinetti, and backup goalie Dan Ellis are all set to become UFAs. For now, it is unclear who will be re-signed.
Summer has started in Carolina. The team that is leaving, however, may not be the same team that returns come the fall.