Sebastian Aho is ready to make the move to North America to play hockey, signing his three-year, entry-level contract Monday with the Carolina Hurricanes.
The question now: can the Finnish forward make the Canes’ roster next season and play in the NHL at 18?
Aho played well for Finland in the 2016 World Junior Championship as Finland won the gold medal and in the recent IIHF World Championship, and has been selected for Finland’s team for the World Cup of Hockey in the fall.
One of Aho’s World Junior teammates was center Aleksi Saarela, whom the Canes obtained from the New York Rangers in the Feb. 28 trade that sent former Carolina captain Eric Staal to New York. Saarela, 19, also signed his three-year, entry-level contract Monday with Carolina.
Aho helped Karpat Oulu, his professional team in SM-liiga, the Finnish elite league, win a championship. He led Karpat in scoring last season with 20 goals and 25 assists in 45 games. The 5-foot-11, 172-pound forward was a member of Finland’s goal-medal winning team in the 2016 World Junior, playing on a line with Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, who both could be among the top four or five picks in this year’s NHL Entry Draft.
Aho was taken by the Canes in the second round of the NHL draft last year and was the 35th overall pick.
“When we drafted him, he was a little bit of an under-the-radar guy but we felt we had a lot of good information on him and watched him play for a long time,” Tony MacDonald, the Canes’ director of amateur scouting, said last week. “We’re always looking for players who can contribute offensively, players who can score. They’re really hard to find today.”
Aho is a sound two-way player, said his father, Harri Aho, the Karpat general manager. But Harri Aho said skating, “how to read the game” and playmaking are Sebastian’s strengths as a player, and it’s his offensive flair that could get him into the Canes’ lineup.
Despite missing 15 games because of his participation with the Finnish World Junior team, Aho tied for fourth in the league in scoring this past season. In the playoffs, he had four goals and 11 assists in 14 games, tying for third in scoring.
“It was unbelievable season for Sebastian,” Harri Aho said Monday in an email. “I think he is ready to take next step to NHL and can play for the Canes next season. He is mentally prepared to be a good player in NHL.”
The entry-level contract will pay Aho $832,500 in the NHL or $70,000 in the American Hockey League for all three seasons. He received a signing bonus of $277,500.
“He had a tremendous season as an 18-year-old playing against men in Finland’s top league, and was outstanding in international competitions including the recent World Championship,” Canes general manager Ron Francis said in a statement. “He will play an important role for the Hurricanes moving forward.”
Saarela, a third-round pick by the Rangers in 2015, played 51 of 60 regular-season games in last season with Assat Pori of the SM-liiga, leading the team in goals (20) and finishing third in points (33).
“Aleksi is a talented, offensive-minded player who we were excited to acquire at the trade deadline,” Francis said. “He took a big step forward last season and led his team in goal scoring as one of the league’s younger players, and we look forward to seeing his game continue to grow.”
Saarela will receive $625,000 in 2016-17, $675,000 in 2017-18 and $750,000 in 2018-19 at the NHL level, or $70,000 per season in the AHL and he also received a signing bonus of $277,500.
Aho will join the Canes’ preseason training camp in early October, after the World Cup competition in Toronto. He would play for the Charlotte Checkers if he does not make the Canes.
“I don’t think there’s pressure on him,” Canes coach Bill Peters said. “I think we’ll bring him in and if he makes our team we’ll make sure we use him properly.”