We sincerely hope that having the meatiest cap hits in Carolina isn’t a point of pride for either Jordan Staal or Dougie Hamilton, who carry $6-million and $5.75-million average annual salaries, respectively. That’s because Hurricanes GM Don Waddell acknowledged earlier this week that he and Sebastian Aho’s representatives have begun the work on a new pact for Carolina’s young gun, and it’s likely only a matter of days, weeks or months before Aho puts pen to paper on a contract that bump him ahead of Staal and Hamilton when it comes to annual cap hit.
“We’ve had lots of discussions and everything has been positive,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell said, according to the Charlotte News & Observer. “We both have the same goal, and that is we want to sign him to a long-term deal and he wants to be here long term. That’s always the starting point, which is always good.”
From the standpoint of cost-effectiveness, there is likely no worse time to be negotiating with Aho than the present. Carolina doesn’t have much choice in the matter, mind you, given that Aho is currently playing out the final season of his three-year, entry-level pact, but the Hurricanes’ bargaining power has taken a few body blows over the opening month of the season.
Not only is the 21-year-old off to the best start of his career with four goals and 17 points through the first dozen games of the Hurricanes’ campaign, he’s also registered at least one assist in every single game Carolina has played this season. The 12-game, season-opening assist streak ties an NHL record jointly held by Ken Linseman and Wayne Gretzky. Aho will get the opportunity to become the first player to stretch that streak to a baker’s dozen Friday night when Carolina visits the Arizona Coyotes.
Better yet, though, Aho’s effectiveness through the early part of the campaign has him on pace to take a sledgehammer to his previous career-best marks. As a rookie, Aho managed 24 goals and 49 points, besting both totals as a sophomore last season with a 29-goal and 65-point campaign. For an encore, however, he currently finds himself on pace for a 27-goal campaign in which he scores upwards of 100 points. And while early season on-pace numbers should be taken with a megalithic grain of salt, Aho’s probably aren’t all that far off. If he stays healthy, a 30-goal, 90-point campaign doesn’t seem so improbable.
Chief among the reasons why a 90-point performance from Aho seems reasonable is that, as we noted earlier this season, the young Finn has proven himself to be one of the game’s elite offensive players over the past calendar year. Presently a top-10 scorer through October, Aho ranks 29th in regular season scoring with 22 goals and 52 points since the beginning of the calendar year. That’s a total similar to or better than the likes of Aleksander Barkov, Jamie Benn, Leon Draisaitl and John Tavares. At the World Championships earlier this year, too, Aho proved his offensive prowess with top forward honors on the back of a nine-goal, 18-point performance across eight games.
It’s his ever-increasing production that has Aho in line to make megabucks on his next pact, though, particularly when you consider the start he’s off to this season and his closest statistical comparables over his first two campaigns. In the past five seasons, players who have put up similar totals to Aho’s 53 goals and 114 points through his rookie and sophomore seasons over their first two campaigns of their respective careers include Brayden Point, Jack Eichel, Mitch Marner, Nikolaj Ehlers and Nathan MacKinnon. Point and Marner are no use as comparables as neither has signed their second big-league pact, but the Ehlers, MacKinnon and Eichel are interesting for a few reasons.
At $6-million and $6.3-million cap hits, respectively, Ehlers and MacKinnon are signed to pacts that represent the old standard for second deals. The $6-million price range was the going rate for top talents coming out of their entry-level contracts, and the league is littered with similar deals, including the contracts of Filip Forsberg, Brandon Saad, Taylor Hall, Mark Scheifele — the list goes on. Eichel, however, is the outlier, thanks in part to the seismic shift that happened when Connor McDavid inked his eight-year extension that carried a $12.5-million cap hit. Not long after, Eichel signed for $10-million per season on an eight-year pact.
What we know, though, is that anything resembling Eichel money appears to be off the table for Aho. Per the News & Observer’s Chip Alexander, there are contractual “outliers” when it comes to Aho’s negotiations, and Eichel’s deal is one of the high-end outliers, with Alexander reporting that the “understanding is the Canes are not offering Aho an Eichel-like contract.” And while that seems reasonable, as Eichel is considered a rising star who will be one of the game’s best and brightest in short order, the statistical reality is that he’s not all that far off from Aho in terms of production.
In fact, if we make a somewhat conservative assumption that Aho finishes this season with 25 goals and 80 points, he will have a three-year production of 78 goals and 194 points in, say, 240 games. The only other player in a similar production range across their first three campaigns over the past five seasons is Eichel, who scored 73 goals and 177 points in 209 games. Aho’s per-game rates for goal production (.33) and point production (.81) would only be slightly lower than that of Eichel (.34 and .85) given the above estimates.
But if the Hurricanes aren’t willing to pay Aho $10-million per season despite rates of production similar to Eichel, what would Carolina be willing to fork over to their young star? It’s unlikely the Ehlers or MacKinnon-type deals get it done. With today’s salary cap limit, similar contracts would pay Aho somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.4 million to $6.9 million. And if an Eichel-esque payment is no good, then it’s clear there needs to be a middleground. But maybe that middleground already exists in Draisaitl, who has been a similar scorer throughout 2018 and, over his first three full NHL campaigns, produced at roughly the same rate as Aho.
If you exclude Draisaitl’s half-season spent with the Oilers in 2014-15, his three-year performance from 2015-16 through to the end of 2017-18 looks an awful lot like Aho’s projected three-year performance using our earlier estimates. To wit, Draisaitl scored .31 goals per game and .85 points per game for a total of 73 goals and 198 points in 232 contests. At $8.5 million per season, he fits between the former $6-million second-contract range and the eight-figure deals that have become somewhat of the new normal for elite young stars coming out of their entry-level deals. And $8.5 million per season for Aho, who is still growing into his game and probably has yet untapped potential, seems like it could be exactly the type of payment it takes to lock him up on an eight-year pact.
Any way you slice it, though, it’s only a matter of time before Aho becomes the highest-paid Hurricane. And with his performance over the past year in particular, no one should be surprised.