There are a lot of ifs, ands and buts in Carolina. The Hurricanes entered the new season with a new, inexperienced NHL bench boss at the helm in Rod Brind’Amour, no clear-cut solution to the goaltending issues that have long ailed them, having traded Jeff Skinner, one of their top offensive stars, and questions about the future of a few key pieces, including long-tenured blueliner Justin Faulk. And even still, with Carolina off to an excellent 4-1-1 start, many of the same questions about these Hurricanes persist.
If we do know one thing about Carolina, though, it appears to be this: Sebastian Aho is the truth.
We know, we know. It’s still early in the campaign and it’s a long season. But don’t go thinking this is a case of getting caught up in early season excitement. Of course, it’s easy to look at Aho’s current scoring pace, which puts him in line for a Gretzky-esque 55-goal, 151-point season across a full 82-game slate, or his being named the NHL’s third star of the week and come to some bold conclusions about what he’ll accomplish this season. It’s neither the on-pace numbers nor the somewhat-meaningless star honor that have the Aho hype train barrelling along at full steam, however. Rather, it’s that Aho has been an undeniable offensive force for the better part of the past 10 months.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment it started, when the switch really flipped, but it would probably be safe to say it was at some point in late-December of last season. At the time, Aho, fresh off of an eighth-place Calder Trophy finish the year prior, was humming along nicely for the Hurricanes. The sophomore winger had a healthy seven goals and 23 points in 34 games — his goal tally all the more impressive given he went the first 16 games without finding twine — and was averaging upwards of 18 minutes per night while being leaned upon heavily as an offensive catalyst in Carolina.
But right before the holiday break, on Dec. 23 with the Buffalo Sabres in town, Aho seemingly found another gear. That night, he ended a seven-game goal drought and three-game pointless streak with a one-goal, two-point effort. The next time out, it was two goals against the Montreal Canadiens. Then one against the Pittsburgh Penguins, followed by points in three more consecutive contests. From that night against the Sabres onward, Aho scored 22 goals and 42 points in 44 games. Only 10 players lit the lamp more often over the same span, while Aho’s point total put him 37th in the NHL from Dec. 23 onward.
Aho didn’t stop there, however. At the World Championships, he was the best offensive player in the tournament, and this is a competition that featured Patrick Kane, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. It wasn’t any of those three, or any of the other all-star calibre forwards, who took top forward honors, though. Instead, it was Aho who added some hardware to his trophy case, doing so with a nine-goal, 18-point performance in eight games at the worlds, his 2.25 point-per-game production the best scoring rate of any participant.
Which brings us to this campaign. Entering the season, few would have suggested anything short of the 21-year-old being the offensive leader in Carolina. The question, though, was what heights he would reach. From his first campaign to his second, he saw a 16-point improvement, going from a 49-point rookie to a 65-point sophomore. A similar rise in scoring, particularly on a team that has been inept offensively over the past several seasons, seemed unlikely. After all, that would make Aho an 81-point player. The projection made in The Hockey News’ annual Pool Guide was that Aho would instead match last season’s output and register another 65-point campaign.
Well, turns out he’s one-sixth of the way there with another 76 games to go. Maybe we should have seen this coming. Including his performance at the World Championships, Aho has scored 35 goals and 71 points in his past 58 games. If you even want to throw the pre-season in there, too, he’s at 38 goals and 75 points in 62 games. He’s scoring at a rate commensurate with the best of the best. He’s producing like a superstar.
At risk of putting too much stock into the Hurricanes’ start, which has been among the most surprising of the early season, there’s reason to believe Aho will have the opportunity to maintain a star-calibre scoring pace the rest of the season. Carolina leads the NHL in 5-on-5 Corsi for percentage and shot percentage while sitting top-five in scoring chances and high-danger chances. Admittedly, a six-game sample tells us very little (read: almost nothing) about a team’s true talent, but it’s worth noting that the Hurricanes have been strong in these metrics in the past — top 10 in all four last season and two of four in 2016-17. This six-game sample might not be all that far off from where Carolina will settle come season’s end if recent history is any indication.
Again, no one is about to suggest Aho’s going to score 150 points and capture the Art Ross Trophy this season. Even his own parents would probably tell us to pump the brakes on that one. But Aho seems well on his way to proving — and, in the minds of some, may have already proven — that he’s to be taken seriously as one of the league’s premiere offensive players.