CHARLOTTE Sebastian Aho got everyone excited in his rookie year with the Carolina Hurricanes, scoring 24 goals, playing with a certain panache this season.
Now comes another Finn making some noise, Aleksi Saarela.
Unlike Aho, Saarela wasn’t drafted by the Canes, coming to Carolina last year in the trade that sent former Canes captain Eric Staal to the New York Rangers. Like Aho, the forward spent an extra season in SM-liiga, playing in the Finnish elite league rather than coming to North America.
But when Saarela did arrive last month, joining the Charlotte Checkers’ lineup in the American Hockey League …
Never miss a local story.
“Sometimes it takes a player some adjustment time, but it took him no time at all,” Checkers coach Ulf Samuelsson said.
Saarela, 20, started scoring and kept on scoring. The center scored in his debut March 28 against Cleveland and had four goals and two assists in a four-game span to quickly be named AHL player of the week.
“After the first game I felt like I had been here awhile, and it’s been good since,” said Saarela, who had six goals and four assists in nine games to help push the Checkers into the AHL playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Saarela said he would like a good, strong finish after what he called a disappointing season in Finland. He said he needed surgery for an injury before the season, keeping him out of the Canes’ preseason training camp and setting him back.
“It was a tough start. The first 15 games it was bad,” he said. “Then I had some good moments, but it didn’t go as I planned.”
Saarela was coming off almost a dream season in 2015-16. Then 19, he led Assat Pori with 20 goals and became something of a teen sensation – with Aho, Patrik Laine, Kaspari Kapanen and others – by winning the gold medal for Finland in the 2016 World Junior Championship.
That it was played in Helsinki, Saarela’s hometown, only added to the excitement of winning.
“For a couple of months after the championship, everyone wanted to talk to us, and it felt like we were rock stars,” he said, smiling.
The Canes signed Saarela to a three-year, entry-level contract last June. A former third-round pick by the Rangers in the 2015 NHL draft, he moved to Lukko Rauma in the SM-liiga, scoring a team-high 15 goals in 49 games but unable to get his team into the playoffs.
At 5-11 and 198 pounds, Saarela has a strong frame and can play a heavy game, if need be. During the AHL playoff opener Thursday against the Chicago Wolves, he went to the front of the net and held his ground against some physical D-men.
But Saarela can skate. Unlike some European players, he said he took an immediate liking to the tighter confines of the North American rink.
“Everything happens fast, and I think it works for me,” he said.
Saarela quickly made friends with Checkers forward Andrej Nestrasil, a native Czech who has become an admirer of Saarela’s game.
“The games I saw him play he was probably our best player,” Nestrasil said. “He’s really built well for hockey. He’s really fast, and he’s got an unbelievable shot with an unbelievable release.
“He can speed up within seconds. The D-man thinks he’s got him, and he just burns him. He’s been really impressive.”
The Staal trade last year had ripple effects. Center Derek Ryan was recalled from the Checkers and began to prove he can play in the NHL. Center Victor Rask was given a six-year, $24 million contract by the Canes in the offseason and asked to take on a bigger role with Staal gone.
Saarela could fill another need for the Canes, potentially adding a scoring forward to the mix.
“If I’ve got a good scoring chance I usually take a shot – I’m not looking for a pass,” he said. “I think it was good for me to be traded here.”