RALEIGH — If there's anything to take away from this playoff run, it's that Eric Staal and Cam Ward are the franchise players the Carolina Hurricanes thought they were.
Staal took a lot of heat for his failure to produce in the conference finals, but his effort never wavered, and he put the Hurricanes in a position to win Game 4 on Tuesday. (And who knows what would have happened if he had scored in the final minute of Game 1?)
Ward wore down against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but his second half of the regular season and first two series of the playoffs showed he is still the goalie who won the Stanley Cup in 2006, and his best may be ahead.
So with those two, the Hurricanes have two cornerstone players to build around. What the sweep at the hands of the Penguins showed was that the Hurricanes still have work to do elsewhere, particularly on defense.
They were able to beat the New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins on hard work and heart, but they were picked apart by the far more talented Penguins, whose cornerstone players -- Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin -- were better than Carolina's, as was the supporting cast.
Just as the road to the Stanley Cupfinals went through New Jersey in the first half of this decade, it's going to go through Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future.Unless you put a team on the ice capable of beating the Penguins, you're playing for second place.
That doesn't mean the Penguins areunbeatable -- only that you have to give yourself a chance. Carolina's defense, as constituted, does not give the Canes much hope in that department.
The Hurricanes went to considerable effort and expense to bring in Joni Pitkanen, Anton Babchuk and Josef Melichar last summer in an attempt to rebuild their blue line after veterans Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican moved on. It's clear after this series there's still work to do.
The Canes are paying Pitkanen $4 million to be a No. 1 defenseman, but he isn't. He's very talented -- and was excellent down the stretch -- but he's part of the answer, not the answer. His failure, in consecutive games, to competently defend a two-on-one helped pave the way for the sweep.
Likewise, Tim Gleason and Joe Corvo could be part of the solution goingforward, even if they weren't the solution in this series. They have roles to play, but they need more help.
As for the other offseason additions, Babchuk scored 16 goals in the regular season but was a defensive-zone disaster in the playoffs, and useless Melichar was dropped in the Jussi Jokinen trade -- addition by subtraction.
The Hurricanes no doubt will try to move Frantisek Kaberle and Niclas Wallin this summer, each with a year left on his contract, to free up payroll and get younger. However, Wallin has a no-trade clause, and the Hurricanes have beentrying to trade Kaberle for a year.
Corvo's name started appearing in trade rumors when the Hurricanes added Pitkanen; that talk no doubt will intensify over the summer. If turning a profit this season encourages owner Peter Karmanos to bump up the payroll, that money should be spent on the blue line.
The Hurricanes are never going to get a legitimate No. 1 guy -- they won't draft defensemen and can't afford them in free agency -- but they should be able to find a defenseman or two who is mobile and solid in his own zone. Last summer's emphasis on offensive ability won't help now. They have to get better in their own zone.
The Hurricanes are still a year from a total makeover, when Wallin, Corvo and Kaberle's contracts expire along with those of Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen and Scott Walker, and players such as Zach Boychuk, Brandon Sutter, Drayson Bowman and Jamie McBain are ready to step in.
For now, they can continue to build around Staal and Ward -- and continue to rebuild a blue line that remains a work in progress.