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How Sebastian Aho’s injuries impact the Hurricanes’ trade deadline strategy

The time may have been right for an aggressive trade, but if Aho misses enough games to sink Carolina in the standings, GM Ron Francis might stand pat at the deadline.

Sebastian Aho lay facedown on the PNC Arena ice, dazed and hurting in multiple places. He’d just absorbed a devastating hit from Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano, ruled malicious by the in-game officiating crew, who banished Giordano, but later declared clean after the NHL Department of Player Safety reviewed it.

Sunday’s collision left Aho with a concussion and a yet-to-be-revealed lower-body injury, and it left Hurricanes GM Ron Francis mentally reeling, disoriented in his own way, not knowing how his best young forward’s health would impact the franchise’s path the rest of this season.

It’s a shame, as 2017-18 was shaping up as a critical juncture for a steadily rebuilding Hurricanes squad. When Francis took over as GM in 2014, he had some pieces to work with – Justin Faulk had already emerged as a promising young offensive blueliner, and outgoing GM Jim Rutherford had selected center Elias Lindholm fifth overall at the 2013 draft, while future top ‘D’ pair Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce were marinating in the system – but Francis was almost starting from scratch. Over his first four drafts, he added Haydn Fleury, Noah Hanifin, Aho, Jake Bean, Julien Gauthier and Martin Necas, just to name a few of the prominent young talents selected. By this summer, the Canes hadn’t yet made the playoffs under the Francis regime, but the gap between them and an Eastern Conference wildcard berth had shrunk from 27 to 10 to 8 points year over year. By the end of 2016-17, Carolina’s young defense corps was the envy of the Eastern Conference, dubbed ‘Nashville East’ by THN’s Ryan Kennedy, and the team’s possession numbers graded out among the league’s best under coach Bill Peters.

It appeared, then, the Hurricanes were ready for their playoff push. They were a popular pick among pundits to leap from outside the playoffs to in, and Francis fortified his young team with veteran additions during the 2017 off-season: right winger and Game 7 playoff magician Justin Williams, checking center Marcus Kruger, stay-at-home blueliner Trevor van Riemsdyk and backup goalie turned freshly anointed starter Scott Darling.

It was fair timing for Francis to start acting more aggressively on the free agent market, and it would’ve made sense to see him do the same on the trade market after this season’s midway point. They’re still just two points out of a playoff spot and grade out as the best possession team in the entire league. Francis told THN Tuesday he’s still in the process of getting to know new majority owner Tom Dundon, which could impact exactly how much money this team has to spend on players going forward, which is relevant with Hanifin and Lindholm becoming RFAs this summer and Aho and Teravainen RFAs in 2019. We’ve entered an era where it makes sense for teams to “take their shot” while their best young players remain in their entry-level contracts, allowing for more salary-cap flexibility when it comes to acquiring veterans. It’s the reason the Toronto Maple Leafs felt comfortable inking Patrick Marleau last summer at a $6.25-million AAV, for example. 

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So the Canes were a team to watch this winter. They are swimming in great young blueliners, with another high-skill one still marinating in Bean. It would’ve made sense to entertain offers for Bean or Faulk or Fleury or Hanifin or perhaps the Canes’ next first-round pick if doing so could secure them the one piece they need the most: a front-line scoring center.

“Everyone wants that skilled scoring center,” Francis said with a laugh. “We’re not the only team looking for that. They’re hard to find.”

Hard – but not impossible. David Poile used Seth Jones to get Ryan Johansen just two years ago and, had Johansen not gotten hurt in the 2017 Western Conference final, he and Poile might own Stanley Cup rings today. Given the Canes’ surplus of talent on defense, the time seemed right to explore similar trades and continue the transition from rebuilding to actively trying to contend for the playoffs. But the Aho injury really clouds the future, as Francis explained Tuesday.

“We’ve got to see how we play without him,” Francis said. “And with everyone being as close as they are in the standings, with everyone in the same boat, you’re trying to figure out where you’re going to be a week from now, two weeks from now, a month from now as we get closer to the deadline.”

So it’s unclear now if we’ll get the answer to the question, “Should Carolina try to go for it?” Aho’s possibly lengthy absence could suppress this team in the standings, making it risky to aggressively pursue veteran upgrades on the trade market. Even if the Canes decide to try something, it sounds like Francis would welcome a long-term solution long before any type of rental. He insists he doesn’t think it’s time yet to make decisions only for now. And he wonders if the hole at center can be fixed without trades anyway – once Aho returns to the lineup healthy.

“Aho, we drafted him as a centerman, so we may be able to move him off the wing into the middle, which may help in that regard,” Francis said. “And Marty Necas who we drafted last year is tracking pretty good, just finished a really strong world juniors for the Czech team. So he may be another guy who can step in and play up on those top two lines and be a point-producing offensive guy. We may be able to fix it internally.”

That sounds like a man who, while certainly not taking a seller approach, isn’t likely to make a hard buyer’s push just yet. We may have to wait another year in Carolina to see that.

“It’s hard to speculate,” Francis said, “But am I going to sell the farm for something right now? No. Absolutely not.”