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One thing still missing from Hurricanes’ otherwise successful summer

Carolina Hurricanes’ Justin Williams on 2018-19 season: ‘We played well, we played hard, we played for each other’

Justin Williams addresses the media on Monday, May 20, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.
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Justin Williams addresses the media on Monday, May 20, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.

The Carolina Hurricanes got the center they desperately needed when they traded for Erik Haula.

They fended off an offer sheet for Sebastian Aho, one that left him signed at a reasonable salary for the next five years.

After they flirted with other goalies and Petr Mrazek flirted with other teams, the Hurricanes and Mrazek ended up together again.

Friday, they picked up a free agent who might be able to finish a few more of the chances they generated last season in speedy winger Ryan Dzingel.

It has been a mostly successful offseason for the Hurricanes, who have avoided pitfalls -- Aho’s contract and the goalie situation -- while addressing weaknesses with Haula and Dzingel.

But only mostly.

Their summer won’t be an unqualified success until they get an answer from Justin Williams, with the captain still deliberating whether to come back for another season or retire.

The expectation within the team is that Williams will return, but no one but Williams really knows what he’ll do, and even he apparently doesn’t know yet. (He declined to comment via text message Friday.)

The Hurricanes need Williams back, perhaps less for what he does on the ice than what he does in the dressing room. The culture and atmosphere Williams and Rod Brind’Amour constructed from scratch last season is a fragile thing that needs tending and nurturing. Even in a reduced on-ice role at age 37, no one is better equipped to finish the job than Williams.

His presence is absolutely vital for the Hurricanes to have a chance to continue their ascent, and Williams is more than capable of doing that in a reduced role.

No one’s expecting him to continue to score 20-plus goals, and the addition of Haula and Dzingel would allow Williams to slot comfortably into a third-line role without as much pressure to produce as there was last season, especially in the playoffs.

It all sets up nicely for him. If he comes back.

Otherwise, there’s a lot to like about what the Hurricanes have done, even if there are some inherent risks involved. Haula is coming off a significant knee injury, Dzingel is far from a perfect player but he can skate and shoot, they would have liked to upgrade from Mrazek but having him back is better than starting over and the Hurricanes had to ship out Calvin de Haan to make the finances work.

But slam dunks (Victor Rask for Nino Niederreiter!) are rare in the NHL and the Hurricanes have done about as well to upgrade their roster as anyone would have imagined two months ago when their extended and prolonged season came to an abrupt end.

The Hurricanes could probably still use a little more muscle in the wake of Micheal Ferland’s departure -- not that he did much from the trading deadline on -- but the Hurricanes believe they can cover the physical bases effectively enough with Staal and Jordan Martinook and Saku Maenalanen, especially if Andrei Svechnikov continues to grow into that part of the game.

There’s still the Brock McGinn arbitration case, but the additions at forward have lowered the stakes; McGinn, like Warren Foegele, are part of what is now a big group of players fighting for spots on the third line, and one of those will likely go to Martin Necas as the Hurricanes give him another shot, on the wing this time.

And there’s the logjam at backup goalie with James Reimer and Anton Forsberg and Alex Nedeljkovic, but sorting that out is the definition of a first-world NHL problem. Reimer would probably be the best fit in the role vacated by Curtis McElhinney, but the combination of his hefty contract and Forsberg having to clear waivers injects some uncertainty into the equation.

That’s all small stuff. The big stuff -- sorting out the No. 1 goalie position, strengthening down the middle, adding a finisher -- is almost complete. The Hurricanes have every right to feel good about that.

But they won’t feel right about it until they get the right answer from their captain.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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