Not since Eric Staal a long 13 years ago has a rookie joined the Carolina Hurricanes with the kind of expectations Sebastian Aho will face this fall.
Staal was the second pick in the strongest draft in a generation, expected to be a franchise player. Aho was a second-round pick a year ago, expected to walk straight onto the Hurricanes’ top two lines after a stellar season both for his club and country – and denied a gold medal for Finland at the World Championships in Moscow on Sunday by Canada and his soon-to-be-coach Bill Peters.
Next stop: Raleigh.
“I would think based on everything he’s done, he’s certainly penciled into our lineup, if not in pen,” Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis said.
While the Hurricanes haven’t been able to enter contract negotiations until now, Aho’s father is an executive for his Finnish team, Karpat Oulu, and the son’s departure for North America has been a foregone conclusion for a while.
Francis said the Hurricanes won’t ask Aho to attend their summer prospects conditioning camp, given how much hockey he has played for both Karpat Oulu and Finland this season at a very young age – he doesn’t turn 19 until July – but he’s expected to join the Hurricanes for rookie camp, training camp and opening night.
There hasn’t been a player coming into a Hurricanes training camp with these expectations since Eric Staal.
Where he fits with the Hurricanes, who knows, since he can play all three forward positions and in all situations. But it’s obvious he’ll fit somewhere.
A pivotal player for Finland both against peers at the World Junior Championships and against NHL players at the World Championships, Aho had a pair of power-play goals in a 3-1 semifinal win over host Russia on Saturday (former Hurricanes forward Jussi Jokinen had the other goal for Finland) before Sunday’s 2-0 loss, Finland’s first of the tournament.
“Of course, you get some more confidence,” Aho told Canadian sports network TSN on Saturday. “Everyone likes to score.”
There hasn’t been a player coming into a Hurricanes training camp with these expectations since Staal. Not Justin Faulk, who was expected to contend for a roster spot and ended up splitting his first two seasons between the NHL and AHL. Not Jeff Skinner or Elias Lindholm or Noah Hanifin, who all made the team out of camp straight out of the draft but with tempered expectations because of their age.
Nor have the Hurricanes ever had a prospect come over from Europe like this (admittedly, there aren’t many to compare Aho against – Marek Malik, Tommy Westlund, Niklas Nordgren?), one with a proven record of success against older players in international competition and the Finnish league, where he was second in MVP voting with 20 goals and 25 assists in 45 games.
In Russia, Aho finished tied for sixth on the Finns in scoring with three goals and four assists, surrounded by quality NHL players such as Aleksander Barkov, Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund, Leo Komorov and Jokinen, as well as Patrik Laine, certain to be a top-three draft pick in June.
Given all of that, is there a danger that expectations for Aho may be a little too high?
“Maybe from the outside,” Francis said. “Not from us. We have to be real careful in how we handle him and how we play him coming out of the gate, sort of let him find his way and feel his way through it, I think. He’s going to be fine. We’re looking at big picture more than the short term with him. We don’t want to affect that big picture because he’s going to be a good, good player for the Hurricanes for a long time.”
In Saturday’s semifinal, Aho was named player of the game for Finland. For Russia? Pavel Datsyuk. That’s already the kind of company he’s running with before he even takes a shift with the Hurricanes.
Luke DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947