Hat trick for Aho, win for the Canes
If he had his druthers, Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour probably would like to see Sebastian Aho somewhere on a sunny beach the next few days, off the ice, taking it easy.
“The way we play is uptempo and really hard and in-your-face hockey,” Brind’Amour said. “It takes a toll on the mental side of things. You grind all season and you push and push.”
That said, Brind’Amour doesn’t in any way begrudge Aho heading off to the 2019 NHL All-Star Weekend in San Jose, Calif. The Finnish center is making his first All-Star Game appearance at age 21, representing the Canes, playing for the Metropolitan Division.
“I’m happy he’s going. It’s well-deserved,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s been good all year, steady, consistent. He’s kind of establishing himself as an all-star type caliber player, and obviously that’s a nice honor for him.
“Those are memories he’ll be able to cherish. It’s quite an accomplishment.”
And think of what Aho has been able to accomplish in this, his third NHL season. He has scored 22 goals, making it three straight years with 20-plus, and 57 points in 50 games. He had his second career hat trick. He began the season with a 12-game point streak that included at least one assist in each game, setting franchise records.
Aho had two assists Wednesday in the Canes’ 5-2 win at Vancouver.
“I think he could play defense, if we had to,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s a very smart hockey player.”
One of Aho’s Finnish friends, forward Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, said Aho’s “mind is like a computer,” that he’s always thinking ahead on the ice, processing plays and situations quickly.
In going to the All-Star Game, Aho will be surrounded by others who fit the same mold. On the Metro team is Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, one of the craftiest centers in NHL history. During a game in Aho’s rookie season, Crosby once glanced over to see the name on the back of Aho’s jersey, impressed with his play. Now, they can sit in the same locker room and talk things over.
“It’s going to be cool,” Aho said. “It’s my first time going and it will be a great experience for me, and I’m going to go enjoy it. To be around some of the world’s best players, that should be cool. In our division, we have some superstars. I don’t know what to expect but it should be fun.”
Canes captain Justin Williams has watched as Aho has grown as a player the past season and half. The two sit next to each other in the Canes’ room at PNC Arena, and Aho in recent games centered a line with Williams and newly acquired winger Nino Niedereitter.
Williams has been on Stanley Cup champions with players such as Brind’Amour with the Canes and Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings. In two years with the Washington Capitals, he played with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
But he likes all that he has seen with Aho. His temperament, his resolve.
“He strives to be great, right?” Williams said. “That’s what you want. That’s what the team wants to see. You don’t want to see a guy happy with being a good player. You want them to be great. And after they’re great you want them to be a star.
“It’s his first taste of being an all-star. And he’ll tell you, too, he’s obviously got a long way to go. That’s awesome because he’s already really good.”
Brind’Amour, in his first year as head coach, initially was hesitant to use Aho at center but that’s no longer an issue. Not that there aren’t mistakes. And when there are mistakes, none slip past Brind’Amour, a veteran of more than 1,600 regular-season and playoff games.
In Tuesday’s road game against Calgary, Aho’s goal with 44 seconds left in regulation tied the score, forced overtime and earned the Canes a point. But he lost the faceoff to begin the OT and was caught drifting defensively as the Flames’ Mikael Backlund quickly scored for a 3-2 win.
“He’s a young kid, still learning,” Brind’Amour said. “We still show him stuff, talking about details, things he can be a little better at. He’s answered the bell for the most part. He’s risen to the occasion more than he hasn’t.”
More than anything Brind’Amour admires Aho’s competitiveness. He burns to win, much as his coach once burned to win.
“That’s what makes him a special player, for me,” Brind’Amour said. “We know he’s talented, he works hard on the ice. But the intangibles are what will make him a special, special player. He hates to lose and he will do anything he can to win.”
2019 NHL All-Star Weekend
SAP Center, San Jose, Calif.
Friday: All-Star Skills Competition, 9 p.m., NBCSN
Saturday: NHL All-Star Game, 3-on-3 tournament, 8 p.m., NBC