The Carolina Hurricanes, fresh off the franchise’s best regular season in over a decade, have surprised the hockey world by pushing the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals to the brink in their first-round series. Sebastian Aho, the resurgent Hurricanes’ leading scorer from the regular season, has helped stabilize the team’s centre depth and is looking to lead Carolina to their first playoff series win since 2009.
Aho, who just completed his third NHL season with the Hurricanes, has improved by leaps and bounds in all three of his seasons, growing from a promising second-round draft pick into Carolina’s franchise player and one of the top two-way threats in the NHL. With his rookie deal expiring and the Hurricanes bubbling with other strong young players, what will they be willing to shell out to lock up their young star?
Sebastian Aho: An In-Depth Look
Aho’s year-over-year growth has been mostly overlooked in the national spotlight, but he has been one of the Hurricanes’ most consistent players since he arrived in Raleigh in 2016. Steadily improving from a 49-point rookie season to 65 points in 2017-18, Aho exploded this season with 83 points, good for 21st across the NHL and his first 30-goal season.
Aho’s breakout season was wholly unexpected, as the Hurricanes hadn’t had a player hit the point-per-game mark since Eric Staal and Alex Semin both reached the mark in the 2013 lockout-shortened season.
While the addition of sniper Nino Niederreiter in a midseason trade with the Minnesota Wild undoubtedly helped a pass-first player like Aho, especially on the power play, it was Aho’s strong possession play and advanced two-way acumen that endeared him to first year head coach Rod Brind’Amour.
Aho’s puck possession style of play and patience with the puck were perfect fits for Brind’Amour’s preferred style of play. Despite the Hurricanes ranking second in the NHL in Corsi for percentage (CF%, a combination of all shot attempts at even strength), Aho still logged a mark of 56.4 CF%, showing it was his play driving the Hurricanes’ on-ice success and he wasn’t just a product of his team.
In addition, Aho ranked 14th in the NHL among all qualified forwards (1,000-plus minutes played) in expected goals-for percentage (xGF%, percentage of even-strength goals scored while player was on the ice), dominating the scoresheet at even strength and controlling the tone of the game on many nights for Carolina.
Aho’s defensive play separates him from many other young forwards in the NHL today, as his 81 takeaways ranked sixth among all forwards and was by far the highest mark of his career. While he was put in a prime position to succeed with a 58.4 percent offensive zone start mark, Aho still managed to shine on a team who doesn’t roster many household names.
Historical Comparisons for Aho
Aho’s big breakout has come at a time when there is an abundance of great young centre talent throughout the NHL, providing plenty of context as to what Hurricanes fans can expect to see on Aho’s new long-term deal. As a bonafide first-line centre with two 60-point seasons under his belt, Aho compares favourably to many of the top young centres that have signed long-term contracts in recent years such as Nathan Mackinnon, Jack Eichel, and Mark Scheifele.
Eichel, the Buffalo Sabres’ leading scorer from this season, could end up being one of the deals that Aho and his agent point to in contract negotiations this summer. Coming off an injury-shortened 2016-17 season, the Sabres bet on Eichel’s potential with an eight-year, $80 million contract. Eichel lived up to his deal in its first season, posting career highs across the board and finishing just below Aho with 82 points.
Mackinnon and Scheifele, who both signed their contracts in the summer of 2016, signed seven and eight-year contracts, respectively, with average values of just over $6 million per season. In the years since, they have both provided great value on those deals and more, with Mackinnon finishing second in Hart Trophy voting two seasons ago and Scheifele posting point per game production in three straight seasons. However, Aho has shown much more consistency in his first three seasons than either Mackinnon or Scheifele, leading to more production and arguably a deserved pay bump over these young stars.
The best comparable for Aho may end up being Tampa Bay Lightning centre Brayden Point, who enters the offseason also seeking a new contract and has seen a similarly impressive rise to stardom in the three seasons since. Factoring in historical contract data, it seems like a forgone conclusion that Carolina will feel comfortable locking Aho into a long-term contract around seven or eight years long. Given that Aho is likely viewed as the Hurricanes’ franchise centrepiece, similar to the young centres mentioned above, it seems likely Aho will command anywhere from $7 to $8 million per year on a long-term contract.
It’s been a long time since the Carolina Hurricanes had a young player as talented as Aho, with the last 80-point performance coming from former captain Eric Staal over a decade ago. With a promising young team that has just had their first taste of the playoffs built around Aho, it seems likely the Hurricanes will look to lock up their budding star centre long-term this summer.
All advanced stats taken from Corsica
Joseph Aleong is an At-Large writer for THW from Toronto, Ontario. He is a graduate of Brock University in St. Catharines, ON. Follow him on Twitter @josephaleong11