In terms of analytics, Sebastian Aho is one of a handful of the best players in the NHL in the early going, up there with Auston Matthews and few others.
In terms of production, it’s probably a miracle the Carolina Hurricanes are 5-1-0 with only a single goal and no assists from Aho as they head out to California for a three-game trip starting Tuesday in Los Angeles.
The balance between performance and production is a tenuous one for Aho, who’s playing great but has almost nothing to show for it. As happy as the Hurricanes are with his overall play, they’re watching him closely to make sure he doesn’t start cheating toward the offensive end, always a risk when a player isn’t scoring, especially one facing the expectations Aho is.
“I feel good, a lot of jump in my feet,” Aho said. “Everything else is good.”
Slow starts are nothing new for Aho, who went the first 13 games without scoring as a rookie and the first 15 two years ago before taking a giant leap forward last October with four goals in the first five games (and then none in the next 12). But this start is different because of how unbelievably well Aho is playing, and how effective his line with Teuvo Teravainen and Nino Niederreiter has been. That trio had two shifts in Friday’s win over the New York Islanders where it was playing a different game than anyone else: faster, quicker, not just one step ahead but several strides.
Goals aside, Aho would have a handful of assists if the snake-bit Niederreiter had finished more of his chances, or if Dougie Hamilton hadn’t missed an empty net off a pass from Aho during an opening two weeks where Hamilton has done everything else right.
By the (other) numbers, Aho has been at the opposite pole. He was third from the top in Sean Tierney’s expected goals metric going into Monday’s games behind Leon Draisaitl and Matthews, and second from the bottom in terms of goals compared to expected goals. (Niederreiter isn’t far behind in that one.) In Friday’s win, the five-on-five scoring chances with Aho on the ice were 18-5 in favor of the Hurricanes, per Natural Stat Trick. That doesn’t happen in the NHL.
But that line regressed, as did the rest of the team, in Saturday’s loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Aho was at fault for a goal when he lost his man in front of James Reimer’s net. Aho slammed his stick on the ice after that, a rare visible instance of frustration from a player who normally keeps his extraordinary competitiveness bottled up inside.
“It’s just a matter of time,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “The key for him is not to press and I don’t want to call it cheat the game, but anticipate on the offensive side. That’s where we have to bring him back a little bit.”
Aho’s overall play -- creating chances for others, dominating possession, wearing down defenses, taking care of his own end -- is as much a factor in the Hurricanes’ start as any of his teammates’ goals and assists. Nevertheless, it’s still a team built in the expectation Aho will be a heavy contributor on the scoresheet as well, albeit maybe not as heavy as the preseason predictions that had Aho nibbling at triple digits in points.
That was always going to be a little extreme, although not out of the question. The Hurricanes need him to score. But they can’t let him to change his game to do it..