Rising up during 2015-16 season
Sebastian Aho has been on a meteoric rise since being drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes early in the second round of the 2015 draft with the 35th pick overall. Looking back, his selection was actually more of a statement than Noah Hanifin’s. When Noah Hanifin fell to #5, his selection was an absolute no-brainer, but Aho’s was an assertive move by Ron Francis and his scouting staff. Aho was rated as high as late first round (I think Corey Pronman from ESPN astutely had him there), but most rankings had Aho in the third round or even fourth. Had Francis wanted to risk it, he might have been able to get Aho in the third round. But Francis obviously really wanted him, had confidence in his scouting staff’s rankings and acted on them. With Aho yet to play an NHL game, it is too early to declare this pick a success with any finality, but as of right now a 2015 NHL redraft would likely see Aho picked somewhere between 8 and 12 . (Earlier this week I traded Tweets with ESPN’s Corey Pronman who said “about right, maybe more to upper range” when asked if 8-12 was about right for a 2015 redraft.) That is obviously well above his #35 selection.
Why is this? It is because he has played lights during the 2015-16 season out on a consistent basis across a number of different venues. One of the biggest stories of the world juniors championship in December was Finland’s first line. Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi garnered the most headlines, but that was largely because they are 2016 draftees which makes them more interesting to the NHL hockey world as free agents who could theoretically go to any of the league’s 30 teams. Sebastian Aho was very much an equal driver and not just a passenger playing on a line with the 2 aforementioned young stars. Aho’s 14 points were just below Puljujarvi who finished with 17 and just above Laine who finished with 13. He had a solid season in the Finnish Liiga playing against professionals who are older and finishing in second place in voting for the league most valuable player. He has continued to play well in the IIHF World Championship.
Projections look legitimately good
Especially with the Canes having a ton of openings at forward right now, fans are already clamoring for Aho to be part of the 2016-17 lineup. There is enough of that coming from scouting sources that it is clearly not just unbridled optimism from biased team supporters. Rather, Aho legitimately projects to play somewhere in the Canes top 9 next season. Put me firmly in the camp that is optimistic about Sebatian Aho’s future in a Carolina Hurricanes uniform. Put me firmly in the camp that thinks it is at least possible for the 2016-17 season.
But let’s not put the cart before the horse (reference Elias Lindholm)
But also put me even more firmly in the camp that this should be decided in September and early October NOT June and July. The last time the Canes had an incredibly promising but still very young, highly-touted European prospect, I think the team botched the situation. The player is of course Elias Lindholm. Drafted fifth overall in 2013 in a deep draft, some (not all) projected him to be NHL-ready. Canes GM Jim Rutherford more of less hyped him and gave him an NHL slot shortly after the draft before Lindholm even set foot in Raleigh. Things went downhill from there. Elias Lindholm arrived to Raleigh for the summer prospects week. Early in the week, he took a shoulder to shoulder hit in a drill from Brendan Woods that put him on the shelf for the rest of the week. He then missed the Traverse City Tourney as the recovery dragged on.
Lindholm was ready to go for the NHL training camp. He did not look bad in training camp, but in early scrimmage and preseason game action Lindholm looked to be more “figuring it out” than “ready to go.” Then his NHL training camp was cut short by another injury. With a choppy summer than was limited in terms of training by the first injury, a ‘meh’ training camp and then a second injury, it seemed reasonable to evaluate whether Elias Lindholm was ready for the NHL and equally significantly if maybe his long-term development might be better served by seasoning at the AHL level or even on loan back to Sweden for another year. But Rutherford had painted himself into a corner such that he either had to stick to his guns even if wrong based on new information or otherwise backtrack which could be a negative for Lindholm’s confidence. Rutherford stuck to his guns and Lindholm forged forward into the NHL season as an 18-year old. After the dual injury setbacks and a slow start Lindholm salvaged progress with a decent second half of the 2013-14 season. He finished with a modest 21 points in only 58 games. We will never know if Lindholm’s development would have been better/faster with another year in Sweden or the AHL before jumping to the NHL, but regardless I think the team mishandled this situation by unnecessarily committing to play Lindholm at the NHL level before he even played a preseason game.
Roster slots should be won not granted
Getting back to Aho,I think it is perfectly okay for fans and even the front office to project Sebastian Aho as a 2016-17 roster player. Especially for us fans who do not make roster decisions anyway, it is great to look forward with optimism. But I also think it is important for management and coaching not to commit unnecessarily to roster decisions for players (not just Aho) who have yet to play even a preseason NHL game. Instead, get Aho signed, leave an opening or 2 at forward to be won in competition and give Aho along with everyone else a fair chance to win it. Then let the chips fall where they may. This approach matches Bill Peters’ mantra about ‘earning ice time’ versus having it granted. And it makes it possible to do the best thing possible for young prospects not based on what the organization hopes will happen but instead what actually does happen when the players see real (or at least preseason) game action.
In the end, my gut instinct tells me that Sebastian Aho will make the 2016-17 Hurricanes team, but I think that is something to be decided on the ice in September.