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Canes are playing well, but Sebastian Aho is struggling at center. That’s worrisome.

Aho struggling at center for Hurricanes

Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour discusses the early play of center Sebastian Aho.
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Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour discusses the early play of center Sebastian Aho.

Despite their preseason parade of wins and goals and good feelings, the Carolina Hurricanes have a big problem developing, and it’s not scoring so much that everyone’s sick of Petey Pablo before the season actually starts.

Not that anyone didn’t expect the Hurricanes to have issues at center, and they tried desperately all summer to add one capable of filling a significant role, but through two games the Sebastian Aho experiment is not going well.

That has the potential to be doubly crippling to the Hurricanes’ offense. Aho’s ineffectiveness at center not only hurts the Hurricanes there but deprives them of his dynamic playmaking on the wing.

“The first game was pretty rough,” Aho said after Friday’s 5-1 win over the Washington Capitals. “That was a tough game for me. This game, I was going too fast. I need to slow it down. I need to be better.”

His move there was born of necessity, but it’s yet another gamble the Hurricanes need to pay off to be successful, like Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas being impact players right out of the box as rookies. The early returns on Aho’s move aren’t good despite the barrage of preseason goals thanks to weak opposition and a barrage of power-play goals against players who would never be trusted to kill an actual NHL penalty. Although, unquestionably, the Hurricanes’ effort level has been outstanding in three wins by a combined 15-3 scoreline, everything you would expect from a team coached by Rod Brind’Amour.

With three games left in the preseason, Aho struggling and Necas going through the usual learning curve, center has emerged as the Hurricanes’ biggest issue. That isn’t a shock. The degree to which it has been an problem, though, is a surprise.

All magnified by a slippery sweet potato. Who knew Victor Rask was this valuable to the Hurricanes? They would have tried to play Aho in the middle anyway, but Rask’s bizarre vegetable-slicing injury left them with no choice.

“I haven’t really liked what he’s done in the two games but I’m not concerned about it at this point,” Brind’Amour said. “We’re going to run it through preseason and then make an assessment where he’s at and where he fits best. We’ll figure it out from there.”

Carolina Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho talks about the start of preseason training camp and the selection of Justin Williams as team captain after the first on-ice session at PNC Arena on Sept. 13, 2018.

It stands out in contrast to the rest of the roster. The defense is as solid as expected. The uber-smooth Dougie Hamilton has to be seen in person to be truly appreciated, a gossamer force with and without the puck. Calvin de Haan is as advertised, a steadying presence in his own end. Brett Pesce looks a little behind the curve after dealing with an upper-body concern over the summer, but with Justin Faulk still around, the Hurricanes have the luxury of working Pesce in slowly.

The wingers fighting for roster spots aren’t making cut-down decisions easy, a welcome change from preseasons past, and the goaltending, so far, has been good. Petr Mrazek is a battler, a little too much at times, but appears capable. Scott Darling looked shaky at times in his only appearance in a very familiar way, but he was unquestionably effective, and that’s all that can be asked of a preseason debut. It should be a confidence-builder for Darling, but the real tests, against better rosters, are yet to come.

It’s the offense where the real concerns lie, despite the gaudy goal totals. The Hurricanes need Aho to be their best player, and if he has to be on the wing to do it, they’re going to have to find some other answer at center. Maybe Lucas Wallmark, who has made a good impression centering the fourth line, will get a chance to play with top-six forwards later in the preseason. Maybe there’s a stop-gap waiver claim. Maybe there’s a Faulk trade out there yet.

And maybe it’s just early. Aho said, other than his late-season auditions with the Hurricanes, it has been years since he played center regularly. A little more practice time; a couple more games starting Tuesday night at the Nashville Predators; a reunion with Teuvo Teravainen, who is off to a slow start himself – any or all of that may do the trick.

“It’s different – still new,” Aho said. “I’ve got to be better. I just need to keep working on it.”

There’s no question Aho has the talent and mentality to be a top-six center in the NHL. The Hurricanes just don’t have time to wait for it to click.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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