Centering a line flanked by uber-hyped wingers Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi at the 2016 World Junior Championships for Finland, Sebastian Aho wasn’t exactly the center of attention going into the tournament.
He suited up in Helsinki as a relative unknown to those outside his home country who may have missed the Carolina Hurricanes calling his name as the 35th pick in the 2015 draft, behind others like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Mitch Marner and then some.
All of that changed from the moment the puck dropped. Finland trounced Russia 6-0 in the opening game, with Aho assisting on half of the goals. He went on to notch 14 points in seven games, including three against Canada in the quarterfinal and a pair in the final, vaulting Finland over Russia to gold.
Roughly 330 days later, Aho is plying his trade in the NHL with the Hurricanes, a team that, like him, is young, fast and skilled. He’s made an immediate impact, which has become a common denominator among Carolina’s graduating prospects.
“It’s not easy to come into this league and play well consistently,” says defenseman Justin Faulk, practically an elder statesman on the Canes’ blue line at 24 years old. “He’s got a lot of skill, and he’s pretty smart and shifty. It’s not easy to come into this league and play well, and I think he’s done a pretty good job. Coming in and being able to handle the NHL at that age is impressive.”
Teammate and countryman Teuvo Teravainen likes what he’s seen as well.
“He’s been great,” says Teravainen. “As a young guy coming into the league and playing his first games here, he wasn’t really nervous or anything. He’s just been playing his own game.”
The 19-year-old pivot from Rauma, Finland, a town with a population of about 40,000 that has historically produced lace but is now churning out quality hockey talent, does in fact thread needles, but his studio is on the ice rather than in a traditional workshop.
Aho has a respectable 11 points in 23 games for the Hurricanes so far in his first season. He currently ranks third on the team leaderboard and ninth among rookies.
He nearly scored his fourth goal of the season at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, beating the Rangers goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist but not their impromptu one in defenseman Marc Staal.
After evading Nick Holden and dashing into the offensive zone, Aho found himself wide open in the slot and the recipient of a perfect pass from Teravainen. His intended follow-up pass deflected off of Holden and past Lundqvist, but Staal dove towards the crease and swatted the puck away before it could cross the goal line. It was an unfortunate sequence of events, but the more of those opportunities he creates, the more he’ll convert.
There’s a sense among his teammates that, not only has Aho been as good as advertised, but also that the best is yet to come.
“Last year, he had a pretty good season in a good league, playing against men,” says winger Jeff Skinner. ”Expectations were that he’d come in and be a contributor, and I think he’s done that. Getting to see his skill and hockey sense in practice every day is something that’s pretty fun as a teammate. People see it in glimpses in games, but when you see it every day, it’s more fun to watch.”
Despite his early success, Aho knows there’s still plenty of work to be done as he continues to get acclimated to the NHL. “It’s so much faster than in Finland,” he says. “There are many small things that you have to learn when you come from Europe to here.”
Having role models and connections to guide him has also proved very helpful, Aho notes. “I try to learn from the Finnish NHL players from my town: Jussi Jokinen, Pekka Rinne, Joonas Donskoi and Joni Pitkanen. I called them and tried to prepare myself that way.”
Aho’s teammates are impressed by his skill, but even more so by his demeanor.
“He’s really smart and really mature for how young he is,” says Skinner. “I think whenever you see someone that young with that maturity and hockey sense, it’s encouraging because he’s only going to keep getting better. His maturity is a little bit more than I expect from someone that age.”
Having played alongside Laine and Puljujarvi, one might’ve deduced that Aho was more of a benefactor of their production and talent than an enabler. And considering his WJC colleagues went second and fourth in the 2016 draft, the contrast in scouting buildup might suggest that theory is accurate.
Though he might slip under the radar to an extent, the Hurricanes know they have a gem in Aho, and it appears he’s content with that.
“Laine and Puljujarvi get more media time, but I don’t think Sebastian really cares about it,” says Teravainen. “He just plays hockey.”