The Carolina Hurricanes have lacked a game-changer at center ever since Eric Staal's heyday, but it appears that player is here. With 24 goals and 39 assists through 56 games this season, Sebastian Aho is thriving as Carolina's No. 1 center after moving from the wing in December following Jordan Staal's injury.
So, what makes Aho so dynamic? Let's study the film.
We'll begin with Aho’s skating, because here’s the thing - it's amazing. Take this example from Carolina's matchup with Vegas on Feb. 1, in which Aho absolutely embarrasses defenseman Deryk Engelland. After carrying the puck around the perimeter of the offensive zone, Aho comes down the left side and Engelland thinks the shooting lane is cut off. Oops ...
As seen above, Aho stops on a dime and immediately wheels backward out of Engelland’s path, sliding over to the right and opening up a shooting lane as the defender falls to the ice. The move requires serious agility and balance, which Aho displays while controlling the puck with his backhand. It's even more impressive from this angle:
Aho uses his dynamic skating to create scoring opportunities for himself, which are necessary on a Hurricanes team that's middle of the pack when it comes to lighting the lamp. In fact, no other player on the roster has exceeded 15 goals this season, so Aho's production has been vital following the trade of Jeff Skinner in the summer.
On Jan. 13, Aho recorded a hat trick against Nashville, with the first goal coming on a breakaway. As seen below, Aho receives the puck and takes off, showcasing the top speed that burns so many opposing defenders. He handles the puck deftly at that speed, too, and then slips it past Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne, making it look easy:
This next sequence - which leads to Aho's second goal against Nashville - features his ability to read the ice and project how a play will unfold. It's just Aho's third NHL season, but the 21-year-old already possesses incredible hockey IQ, allowing him to slow the game down, read his options, and make the best choice.
Here, Aho begins with the puck and makes a pair of passes along the right side of the offensive zone. As the play continues on the other side of the net, he finds open space closer to the crease and gets ready to receive a pass before one-timing a shot past Rinne.
Next, we have an example of Aho's patience and hockey sense, which lead to a goal against the Vancouver Canucks. The play begins with teammate Nino Niederreiter in a board battle, while Aho skates by the scrum at the perfect time to grab the puck and give Carolina control in the offensive zone. Aho then skates below the goal line, keeps his head up, and holds the puck until Niederreiter's ready to receive a pass in good position.
At that point, Aho passes, Nino shoots, and the Hurricanes score:
In Staal’s absence, Aho has matched up with some of the league's top players at both ends of the ice, and he's handling his own zone like a seasoned pro. Here, we have a tiny moment against Vancouver, during which Aho shows vision in his own end by grabbing the puck and neatly sweeping it away from danger with an offensive player closing in:
It's a small play in the grand scheme of things, but it's a good example of Aho's hockey sense allowing him to track a play, put himself in the right place at the right time, and act quickly to limit opposing opportunities.
After playing in his first career All-Star Game last month, it would be no surprise if Aho's improving skill set leads to more appearances in the future, and to the No. 1 center job in Carolina for years to come.