Sebastian Aho is a smart, skilled, smooth-skating, puck-moving, rookie defenseman for the New York Islanders. Last season was his first in North America after getting selected in the fifth round (no. 139 overall) out of Sweden in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. He was named an AHL All Star because of his standout play with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and, due to injuries on the back end at both levels, he was called up to the NHL in late December 2017.
I was very encouraged by what I saw from Aho in his 22 games with the Islanders last season. Though he’s on the smaller side (at 5’10”), he seems to possess the tools necessary to overcome that: poise, quickness, good puck skills and excellent hockey IQ. In this way, he reminds me quite a bit of the Silver Fox, Lubomir Visnovsky. Please tuck your tongue back in your mouth and wipe the drool off your iPhone, Tom Wilson.
Today, I’m going to show you several plays highlighting the attributes I find most promising in Aho’s game. I’m also going to give you some some underlying stats in which Aho performed rather well, courtesy of my colleague, Travis Flynn (a/k/a North Dakota Red Eagle). A complete player evaluation requires both stats and “the eye test” and in the case of Sebastian Aho, they both indicate the same thing: he is a very promising defenseman with a bright future.
First up is a video I put together showing what I like so much about Aho’s game; many of these clips will be broken down further below. Please note I went to great lengths to bleep out all derogatory language in this video.
Now, let’s take a look at some stats. Keep in mind Aho played just 22 games last season. That’s a small sample size, so these numbers should not be taken as wholly indicative of the quality of player Aho will be. That being said, the 2017-18 Islanders were so atrocious defensively, it was still impressive for a neophyte to put up respectable numbers over one-quarter season.
A. Preventing Shots
The Islanders allowed fewer shots with Aho on the ice than they did without him on the ice. This was the case from the middle (and most dangerous area) of the defensive zone (DZ), per the following shot charts, courtesy of Micah Blake McCurdy:
It was also the case overall, too. Aho put up a -7.4 CA/60 Rel, per NDRE. That means the Islanders gave up seven fewer shot attempts per 60 minutes with Aho on the ice than they did without him on the ice. This is a very good mark that places Aho alongside some of the best defensemen in the NHL:
-9 Hampus Lindholm
-8 Oliver Ekman-Larsson
-7 Sebastian Aho
-6 Erik Karlsson, Mark Giordano
-5 Drew Doughty, Kris Letang, Dougie Hamilton
Does this mean that Aho is better than guys like Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty? Actually, yes. That’s exactly what this means.
B. Controlling the Blue Line
The following chart, courtesy of Sean Tierney and Corey Sznajder, shows how NHL defensemen controlled the defensive zone blue line. I highlighted Aho in yellow, along with some other defenseman with similar marks in the “Good” quadrant:
See here for full, interactive table (covers all games through March 17th) (so all but one of Aho’s 22 games).
What this table shows is how Aho performed in two respects:
(1) Preventing opposing players from carrying the puck into the Islanders zone with possession: slightly above-average.
(2) Exiting the defensive zone with possession: excellent.
We all know that successfully breaking out of the defensive zone is important. But it’s probably even more important than you might imagine: almost half of all goals scored come after a poor or failed exit by the defending team, per Alex Novet.
Last year, the Islanders were one of the league’s worst teams at successfully breaking out of their own zone after gaining control of the puck. I’ve no doubt Aho would be a tremendous help in this regard.
So what is it that Aho does on the ice to help the Islanders exit their defensive zone with possession so well?
A. Breakout by Passing the Puck
Most primarily, he’s an exceptional passer. This is my favorite aspect of his game and one of the most important attributes I think a defenseman can have. Here are a few clips of Aho’s beautiful passing:
I recommend you toggle the “HD” option on in these clips.
Aho shows good vision in identifying passing lanes and he execute his passes with timing and accuracy. He is equally adept at the long stretch pass as he is off a set breakout play (i.e., off a dump-in retrieval or DZ faceoff win). He’s also capable of completing these breakout passes from both sides of the ice, making him an ideal candidate to play the off-side if there remains an imbalance of right- and left-shooting defensemen next season.
Notice the breakout play off the defensive zone faceoff win against Boston at 0:42 in the above clip. I really like how Aho skates the puck behind the net before passing it to Bailey at the half-wall, rather than just wheeling it around the boards to him (which plenty of defensemen would do). It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s the sort of decision that demonstrates a higher level of understanding and attention to detail.
It’s worth noting that this ties into the first stat mentioned above as well: preventing shot attempts. Every pass that lands on a teammate’s stick is one that does not land on an opponent’s, and is one that results in shots for the Islanders rather than against them.
B. Breakout by Carrying the Puck
Aho has shown he can take matters into his own hands as well. He might not have Nick Leddy speed but his quickness, poise and awareness enable him to skate the puck out of some tight spots in the defensive zone or otherwise hold onto the puck in order to make a productive play (rather than just sail it up and out for a turnover or icing).
Aho does a great job of keeping his feet moving, which is something Butchie has specifically pointed out several times on the broadcast. The two plays in the defensive zone against Detroit and Nashville in particular illustrate the poise and confidence this player has.
C. Preventing Zone Entries
This was represented by the y-axis (or vertical axis) of the above chart. As with so many other defensive aspects of the game, the Islanders struggled mightily in preventing opponents from entering their zone with possession last season. That’s really bad because entering the zone with possession results in more than twice as much offense as entering via dump-in.
Aho was hardly a stalwart in this regard and I think he could certainly improve his gap control. But he showed a really good stick and excellent anticipation to stop opposing attacks before they could ever get started.
D. Offensive Zone Play: Pinching
Aho showed really good awareness when deciding whether to pinch into the offensive zone or get back on defense. He’s particularly clever moving in on the weak-side (the side of the ice opposite the puck), to make himself an option on the back door.
Aho’s good decision-making in this regard was in stark contrast to what we saw from his most-common defensive partner, Adam Pelech. I’ve written in-depth on Pelech’s poor judgment when pinching last season and he could learn quite a bit from Aho.
Notice the clip against Minnesota at 0:23. You can see the moment Aho, in the midst of stepping up from the half-wall, changes his mind and gets back on defense instead. He sees the Wild already have the puck and realizes his pinch is nothing more than a low-percentage risk that could hurt his team.
Aho takes the cautious approach and gets back on defense - even though Bailey is actually back at the point covering for him. In so doing, he prevents a MIN odd-man rush in the neutral zone and transitions back on offense. This was beautifully done by Aho and the lesson no. 50 - watching this play from the other side of the ice - could’ve learned from it was that it’s never a bad idea or too late to get back on defense if your pinch is unlikely to succeed.
E. Offensive Zone Play: Shooting
Lastly, I really like how Aho navigates the offensive blue line. The way he quickly pivots and side-steps away from incoming closeouts to change his shooting angles is pretty impressive.
As Kings star goalie Jonathan Quick wrote, “The best shooters aren’t necessarily the hardest shooters — the best shooters are the guys who can drastically change the angles of their release.” Plenty of defensemen struggle with getting the puck through to the net, with all the bodies in the way and the focus on shot-blocking. I think Aho will prove to be very good at this in time.
Now, Aho hardly lit the score sheet on fire in his brief time up with the Islanders but it can take defensemen some time to get comfortable offensively. Keep in mind: Aho’s 0.73 points per game led all AHL rookie defensemen and was tied for fifth-most (with teammate Devon Toews) for all AHL defensemen (min. 20 games)). It’s this combined with the skill and mobility he’s shown in the NHL that portend good things to come on that end.
So there you have it, folks.
I ranked Sebastian Aho higher than anyone else in our Top 25 Under 25 ranking and this is why. He’s a very skilled, smart player who can really the move the puck at a high level. Though I doubt he makes the team out of training camp (considering the crowded logjam on defense right now), I really hope to see him up with the Islanders as soon as possible. They are undoubtedly better with him in the lineup.
And that’s all I have to say about Sebastian Aho.