Before the 2022-23 season started, there were questions about who would play the left side of the final pairing of the defensive unit for the New York Islanders. Sebastian Aho presumably would start the season in that position but Robin Salo, at 24 years old, was the younger option with a higher upside. After an impressive training camp, the position looked like it was Salo’s and first-year head coach Lane Lambert put him on the opening-night roster.
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After four games, Aho made his season debut in an Oct. 22, 5-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning and he never looked back. He went on to start in 71 of the 82 regular-season games and rounded out a defensive unit that became one of the best in the NHL as the Islanders allowed only 2.65 goals per game. Aho was a pleasant surprise for the Islanders all season and he is expected the build off a breakout year and be even better next season to help the team compete for the Stanley Cup.
Aho Added Speed and Depth to the Defense
Playing alongside Scott Mayfield for the majority of the season, Aho was given a lot of leeway on the ice. He could play aggressively and attack the skaters in space to force turnovers, knowing a disciplined defenseman was there to compensate for any mistakes. Likewise, Aho would more often be the defenseman that would join the play on the rush while Mayfield would play behind the play, giving the Islanders a more potent attack off of turnovers with an extra skater.
The aggressive style was a particular benefit to Aho’s skill set. One of his best attributes is his skating ability and he would not only join the offense on the rush but limit opposing skaters in space. His speed made him a two-way player, but more importantly, made him a great defenseman as he rounded out the defense.
Aho finished the season with 3.3 defensive point shares and 69 blocked shots, both of which were sixth-best on the defensive unit. While he didn’t overwhelm anyone with his defensive play, he stepped up and filled the void on the left side, giving the Islanders a defense that could win on a nightly basis.
The Islanders’ defense already had Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock running the top two pairings. Noah Dobson and Alexander Romanov, who the team acquired during the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, were the two young NHL-caliber defensemen that played multiple roles on the unit. The only question mark was who would play alongside Mayfield, the veteran of the unit at 30 years old. Aho played a limited role, averaging only 16:46 ice time but on the third pair, he assured the Islanders wouldn’t have a liability on the defense.
Aho Provided a Much-Needed Puck-Handling Presence
The Islanders traded Devon Toews in the 2020 offseason to the Colorado Avalanche. The move helped them open up salary cap space but gave the Avalanche an elite defenseman who helped them win the Stanley Cup in 2022. In the 2021 offseason, the Islanders traded Nick Leddy to the Detroit Red Wings. While Leddy didn’t turn the Red Wings into Cup contenders, the absence of him and Toews was felt in the 2021-22 season. Specifically, the defensive unit lacked puck handlers that could turn defense into instant offense.
The Islanders had a good defense in 2021-22, allowing only 2.82 goals per game, but the unit was slow and unable to move the puck. With Toews and Leddy being replaced by Andy Greene and Zdeno Chara, the Islanders couldn’t move the puck out of the defensive zone and were hapless at the blue line in the offensive zone as well. The defense taking a step back was one of many reasons they missed the playoffs that year and ultimately fired head coach Barry Trotz.
Aho helped the Islanders rebound, making it faster and more effective with the puck. He would often carry the puck out of the defensive zone and start up the offense with outlet passes or offensive zone entry passes. Aho’s stats reflected his ability to create offense as he scored five goals and 18 assists despite playing a limited role. He wasn’t an elite playmaker on the defense but he would set up odd-man rushes and find open skaters to improve the team offensively, as the Islanders averaged 2.95 goals per game, up from 2.79 the year before.
The league is faster and more offensive-minded with goals being up in each of the past two seasons. Defensemen are being asked to do more and specifically, they are asked to contribute to the offense. It’s emphasized from the youth level, to the development level, and especially at the NHL level. With Aho becoming a reliable puck handler, the Islanders’ defense is more suited to win in the modern game and compete against faster, more skilled opponents.
Where Aho Needs to Improve
He needs to become a more active skater in the offensive zone. Aho doesn’t have a great shot and tends to pass the puck at the point instead. However, if he can get the puck on the net and create chaos near the goal, it can go a long way not just for his stats but the Islanders’ offense as well.
Aho also needs to prove that he can be a viable option to play the point on the power play. The Islanders had one of the league’s worst power-play units this season, scoring only 15.77 percent of their opportunities, making it more of a liability than an advantage. Dobson, Pulock, and Romanov are more likely to play the point on the power play but Aho needs to prove that he can contribute as well next season.
When the Islanders faced the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the gap between the two defensive units was exposed. The Islanders’ defense was good but failed to contribute in all facets of the game. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, were led by an elite defense that not only created turnovers, but opened up the offense at the point to allow them to win the series in six games. The gap was the difference between a team that could make the playoffs and one that could compete for the Stanley Cup and Aho’s continued improvement will play a pivotal role in closing that gap.
The other big part of Aho’s game that needs to change is that he’ll be asked to take on a greater role. He’ll play more ice time and need to be more than a third-pair option. With Mayfield heading to free agency, the Islanders might enter next season with a void at the blue line and replace the veteran with a young skater like Samuel Bolduc. With that change, Aho must step up and start to carry the defense to allow the Islanders to compete next season.