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For Hurricanes, 5th straight year outside the playoffs leads to off-season of uncertainty

RALEIGH, N.C. - The Carolina Hurricanes have entered perhaps their most uncertain off-season since they moved to North Carolina.

There are lingering questions nearly everywhere they look: in the front office, behind the bench and on the ice.

Finding those answers will be critical as they try to snap the Eastern Conference's longest active playoff drought.

The Hurricanes finished 13th in the 16-team East with a 36-35-11 record that kept them out of the playoffs for a fifth straight season.

That's their longest streak since moving south in 1997, and it matches the second-longest post-season drought in club history—dating back to when they were the Hartford Whalers.

Captain Eric Staal said Tuesday that "you miss the playoffs that many times in a row, everyone's going to be under the microscope."

It all starts at the top of the organization and trickles down: There are questions about whether 20-year general manager Jim Rutherford will be back, amid late-season speculation that he will retire. He has told The Associated Press that he would wait until after the season to decide his plans.

It's also unknown if coach Kirk Muller will receive a fourth season after going 80-80-27 in his first three years.

When asked if it was tough for Muller to get his message across to the team, former All-Star goalie Cam Ward said "for me, obviously, I'm going to avoid that one."

Ward has been the subject of persistent possible trades after he was beaten out by Anton Khudobin. The team carried three goalies for the final month of the season, a rarity in the NHL.

"I definitely want to be a Hurricane moving forward," Ward said.

He and Staal are the only remaining links to the Carolina team that won the Stanley Cup in 2006. They've only made the playoffs once since then, reaching the Eastern Conference final in 2009.

Asked if he could see himself going to another team, Staal said he has "never thought that, dreamed that or wanted that.

"I've been here a long time, I love it here and I've had success here and I know and I believe that we can again and I can be a part of that," Staal said. "But like I've said, it's not a forever career, and I'm not enjoying continually missing the playoffs. So hopefully we can continue to improve and get better and get back."

Part of the Hurricanes' problem was that their most expensive players weren't always their most productive.

The four highest-paid players combine to make nearly $28 million—or, more than 40 per cent of the team's payroll—and they all had simultaneously subpar years.

Eric Staal ($8.25 million) finished with 21 goals, his fewest in an 82-game season since he had 11 as a rookie 10 years ago. Younger brother Jordan Staal ($6 million) had 40 points, his fewest in a full season since 2008 when he was a secondary option on a star-studded Pittsburgh team.

Alexander Semin ($7 million) had just 42 points this season after putting up 44 during a lockout-shortened 2013. While hampered by injuries, Ward ($6.3 million) gave up more than three goals per game for the first time since he was a rookie in 2005-06.

"I just struggled to get comfortable all season long," Ward said. "Coming back from (the injuries), it just felt like I was playing catch-up."

There were a few bright spots. Young forward Jeff Skinner scored a career-high 33 goals. Khudobin went 19-14 with a goals-against average of 2.30.

And Andrej Sekera, picked up in an overlooked draft-day trade with Buffalo, ranked third on the team and tops among defencemen with 44 points while winning team MVP honours.

But those individual accomplishments couldn't mask the overall team disappointment.

"Clearly didn't accomplish anything near what we wanted to as a group," veteran defenceman Ron Hainsey said. "There's no escaping that."

___

Follow Joedy McCreary on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joedyap

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