Sports

After offer-sheet drama, Canes star Sebastian Aho ready to work

Sebastian Aho scrimmaged Tuesday with his Carolina Hurricanes teammates at Raleigh Center Ice, did some extra skating and then spent time taking shots before finishing up the informal workout.

Had things gone differently on July 1, had the Montreal Canadiens not made an offer sheet for Aho, had Aho not signed it, the Canes center might not have been at RCI. Aho might still be in Finland, waiting for a new contract extension to be hammered out with management.

Like other restricted free-agent forward in the NHL — Toronto’s Mitch Marner and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine, to name two — Aho might be still be unsigned, still sitting out, wondering when he’d be joining his teammates.

“You never know but watching those other guys, there’s a pretty good chance,” Aho said in an N&O interview on Tuesday.

But the offer sheet was tendered by Montreal, the Canes quickly matched it and that was that. Aho was signed for the next five years (for $42.2 million). When preseason training camp begins Thursday with physical testing, then on the ice Friday, the Canes’ leading scorer (83 points) from last season will be there.

“That was a pretty big reason why I did it,” Aho said. “I wanted to start the season on time and it’s pretty good to be here right now with the guys. You don’t have to stress or anything. You’re here.”

The Canadiens’ offer sheet on July 1, when NHL free agency began, was the first in the NHL since 2013 and widely discussed around the league, even though Aho said he missed most of the “drama” of the day.

“It was probably the weirdest day of my life,” Aho said. “It all happened pretty fast. Obviously there’s a big time difference, too. It was evening already (in Finland) when I had to make a pretty big decision. Actually that was a good thing. I was sleeping when a lot happened. I went to bed and the next day was a new day and Carolina matched.”

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Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho (20) waits for a face-off during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, in Raleigh Karl B DeBlaker AP

Canes owner Tom Dundon appeared almost offended that a team would make such an offer — five years, with an average payout of $8.454 million per year. That it was front-loaded with bonuses, with $21 million to be paid Aho in the first 12 months, caused Dundon no hesitation or consternation. He is a billionaire owner, with the financial wherewithal to match any offer.

Dundon on July 2 said the Canes would match the offer sheet, although the official notice to the league was not sent until July 7. Dundon referred to the ploy as a “waste of time” on the Canadiens’ part, even as Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin and Aho’s agent, Gerry Johannson, talked publicly of Aho’s apparent willingness to join the Canadiens and speculated that Dundon and the Canes might balk on making the financial commitment.

“I didn’t read any of that stuff,” Aho said. “I had no clue what was going on in the media.”

Aho said he talked with Dundon on July 2, adding: “I’m happy it went down pretty quickly. It was one day and everything was back to normal, I guess. There was a lot less drama than media (reports). Everyone knew pretty much what was going to happen.”

That Johannson made his comments to Marc Antoine Godin of The Athletic after the offer sheet was tendered made little sense. The terms of the contract were set once Aho signed the offer sheet. If anything, Johannson’s comments could have poisoned the water a bit for Aho with some Canes fans. Does Aho really want to play for the Canadiens?

“Those weren’t my comments, so I’d rather not comment on it,” Aho said Tuesday. “I’ve said probably a hundred times already what I think about the situation. That’s not what I was saying.”

Canes general manager Don Waddell said on July 1 and afterward that he believed Aho only wanted to be with the Canes, that he had no intention of leaving regardless of what his agent said.

“I don’t take his comments with any grain of salt at all. I take Sebastian’s comments,” Waddell said in a recent interview. “I trust players, I don’t trust the agent. Sebastian has made it very clear this is where he wanted to be.”

Of the offer sheet, Waddell said, “It was sold to him as a way to get a contract done one way or another.”

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Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho (20) reacts as time expires and the Hurricanes fall 2-1 to the Boston Bruins in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday, May 14, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Aho, who turned 22 on July 26, was the first player to sign an offer sheet since Ryan O’Reilly, then a center with the Colorado Avalanche, approved a two-year, $10 million offer sheet from the Calgary Flames on Feb. 28, 2013. The Avs matched.

Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said he never fretted about Aho not returning. Brind’Amour worried about Justin Williams, perhaps, but not Aho.

“We knew he was going to be a part of our group,” Brind’Amour said last week at the Canes media day. “It was just a matter of how much we’d have to pay him.”

Canes center Jordan Staal said Aho texted him a few times this summer. The message, Staal said, was that Aho was “happy to be part of this group and what we’ve accomplished so far and obviously trying to bring another (Stanley) Cup here.”

Added Staal: “I think in general everything worked out the way everyone wanted it to, for the most part. Maybe the Canes probably wanted to have had him for a few more years but beyond that I think the numbers probably weren’t far off. It’s done and it’s over with and he’s focused and he’s ready to go. I think that’s a big thing for our team and obviously one of our best players.”

Aho, used at center by Brind’Amour, had a career-high 30 goals and 83 points in 82 games last season, and was named an NHL All-Star, as Carolina surged into the Stanley Cup playoffs and reached the Eastern Conference finals. Conceding he was ailing a bit in the playoffs without disclosing the injury, Aho had five goals and seven assists in the 15 games.

“There was no time to think about it and playing in front of such awesome crowds gives you so much energy,” he said.

Aho said he worked even harder this summer than in past years in conditioning, beginning his skating in June rather than July, determined to make his fourth NHL season better than the first three.

“It’s really nice to know I will be here for a long time and I really like where this team and this organization is going,” Aho said. “I mean we had a great year last year but I think that’s just us setting the bar a little bit higher. We want to be a really good team right from the jump and go from there.”

In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.
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