(This is another in a series of stories about what the Hurricanes must do to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.)
Many marveled at how well Sebastian Aho played as an NHL rookie last season for the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Finnish forward has speed and on-ice savvy. He thinks the game quickly and well. Although not the biggest guy, he’s somewhat fearless in getting around the net for scoring chances and in competing for the puck.
“Great vision, good shot, quick hands,” Canes center Jordan Staal said. “He’s got all the things you need to be a star player.”
Aho didn’t score until his 14th NHL game but finished with 24 goals, topped only by Jeff Skinner’s 37 on the Canes. He also was second to Skinner in points with 49.
“It was all right,” Aho said.
All right? At 19, he showed his durability by playing 82 games. He was among the NHL rookie leaders with 214 shots. He notched his first career hat trick.
“It took me like 20 games to get there, to get to where I want to be,” Aho said. “I started all right, the first couple of games, but I wasn’t happy. It takes some time when you’re learning how to play in the smaller rinks with new system and new guys.
“I’m glad it was only 20 games. I got some confidence and it was easier. But we didn’t make the playoffs and that’s our biggest goal this season.”
The Hurricanes, who open the season Oct. 7 against the Minnesota Wild at PNC Arena, are in the NHL’s toughest division, the Metropolitan. To qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2009, they’ll either have to finish in the top three in the Metro or earn one of two Eastern Conference wild-card spots.
General manager Ron Francis has talked often of the Canes’ younger guys needing to take the next step, step up their games another notch to be a playoff-caliber team. Aho is one of those guys.
Canes coach Bill Peters says he will help Aho’s development by keeping him on the wing another season. Aho was drafted as a center and has been dynamic at center for Finland in some international competitions, but Peters seems determined to keep him on the wing.
“One more year, just to keep the expectations realistic,” Peters said. “He’s still growing into his body, getting comfortable and confident.”
Aho has gotten the attention of those around the NHL. Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins asked about No. 20 for the Canes after a game. Others did the same.
Asked if opposing players now know his name, Aho smiled.
“Yeah, but it’s hard to say,” he said. “It’s a tough question.”
In his mind did he establish himself in the league as a rookie?
“I don’t know what to say to that.”
Another Finn, Canes forward Teuvo Teravainen, has an answer.
“I think he took a lot of big steps last year,” he said. “It took him a few games to score but by the end of the year he was scoring a lot of goals, holding the puck more and creating chances. Now, he’s stronger and one year older.”
Aho was noticeably bigger in the arms and shoulders when training camp began. He’s listed at 5-11 and 172 pounds, but said he has added some weight.
Aho competed for Finland in the 2017 World Championship, then spent part of the summer working with trainer Samppa Jaakkola and a small group of Finnish hockey players that at times, he said, included former Canes defenseman Joni Pitkanen.
“I feel I got stronger and faster,” Aho said. “I feel I’m in better shape now. So that’s good.”
Staal said Aho “has that desire to be one of the best.” For the Canes to be a playoff team this season, he needs to be one of their best.