Canes start with lots of skating and a new captain
Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes wants 100 or more points this season, which is ambitious and probably not what you think.
It’s not 100 points for Aho, as in goals and assists. It’s 100 points for the Hurricanes, a team left out of the Stanley Cup playoffs the last nine years.
“That’s my No. 1 goal,” Aho said in an interview at training camp. “I want our team to win more. I don’t want to be that team that tries to get that last playoff spot. I want our team to be a team that’s in the last four and has over 100 points.”
Last season, the Vegas Golden Knights put together a team not entirely of castoffs but from an expansion draft and reached the Stanley Cup final before losing to the Washington Capitals. In their first year of existence, the Golden Knights finished with 109 points, winning the Western Conference championship.
“Anything can happen,” Aho said. “And we’re better than we were last year. We just have to trust ourselves and work hard.”
And Aho wants to be better -- a lot better. The Finnish forward, in his first two years in the league, has gained a lot of admirers in the way he approaches the game, the way he plays it.
“I like Sebastian’s tenacity, I like his attitude,” Williams said. “I think he’s a really good person and I think he genuinely wants to be the best player on this hockey team.”
At 21, Aho may be close to being that, if not already the Canes’ best. A year ago, he had team bests with 29 goals and 65 points, playing 78 games.
And consider this: Aho did not score in the first 15 games. He had 45 shots on net in those games and missed on all 45, then shot 18.7 percent the rest of the season.
As a rookie in 2016-17, Aho had a similar start, going the first 13 games and taking 26 shots before scoring his first NHL goal. It was his first season playing on North American rinks, with the tighter confines than European rinks, but he finished with 24 goals after making the adjustment.
“The first year I didn’t play that well at first,” Aho said. “I think I was trying to get used to the smaller rink and all that stuff.
“The second year I think I played all right. I had like 10 points but I just didn’t score. I had lots of chances, so I knew it was coming. I was more confident about that. I was getting so many chances every game that I wasn’t worried.”
The Canes were 6-5-4 in the first 15 games and held to two or fewer goals in five of the losses. A few more goals, by Aho and others, could have made for a better start for a team that finished with 83 points and a 36-35-11 record.
Brind’Amour, who handled the forwards as a Canes assistant under former coach Bill Peters, is a little at a loss to explain Aho’s early goal-scoring droughts.
“I don’t look at it as there was any one thing,” Brind’Amour said. “We talked about that a lot the last couple of years, why he starts like that. I don’t know there is a real reason.
“I don’t want to waste a lot of time trying to figure that out. If he didn’t come into camp in shape, I’d say that’s why. But he does, so I’m not going to worry about that too much, and hopefully it doesn’t become an issue.”
Aho doesn’t believe it will be. And like Brind’Amour, he said he would not overanalyze it.
“For sure, I just want to put the puck in the net earlier because it’s easier to build some confidence,” he said. “If you get 45 shots before you score your first goal that’s not good, so so I’ll just try harder. It’s all about confidence, you know.
“But I’m really not thinking about that. I just want to be ready, try to find some connection with my line mates.”
Brind’Amour isn’t convinced Aho is best-suited to play center in the NHL -- not yet. But with center Victor Rask now sidelined indefinitely after hand surgery, that decision likely has been made: Aho will stay in the middle for now.
Many centers in the NHL are built along the lines of the Canes’ Jordan Staal, who is 6-4 and 220 pounds. Aho is listed at 5-11 and 172 pounds, although he does play stronger than his size would suggest.
Aho has taken some hard knocks. He was carrying the puck through the offensive zone in a game last season when he was leveled by defenseman Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames. He injured a knee and suffered a concussion on the play -- Giordano received a match penalty -- although missing just four games.
“Usually, a prototypical center is 6-3, 220, big guy, skates well,” Williams said. “You need to have that arrogance, that being strong on the puck, the ability to win face-offs and the ability to be counted on. That’s a big responsibility, playing center, and we’ll see if he can handle it.”
Aho has become one of the team’s most recognizable, marketable players, one that owner Tom Dundon has said he’d like to sign to a long-term contract extension. Negotiations continue, and the Canes also would like to sign another Finn, forward Teuvo Teravainen, to a new deal.
The Hockey News recently released its list of the top 50 players in the league. Canada’s Sportsnet put out a list of the top 100. Aho didn’t make either.
Added motivation, perhaps?
“That’s media. I’ve got nothing to say,” Aho said.
Does he feel underrated as a player?
“The media can write whatever,” Aho said. “It doesn’t affect me or my team. I just want to be a better hockey player. I want to be a better hockey player all around, not just score goals.
“I want to step up and take a bigger role for my team. I want more wins.”