When the New York Islanders selected then 21-year-old defenseman Sebastian Aho in the 5th round of the 2017 NHL Draft, it was viewed by some as a smart, under the radar decision. Habs Eyes on the Prize had written about Aho as someone the Montreal Canadiens should look to sign or bring in on a tryout, citing his strong play in the SHL (10 goals and 30 points in 50 games before being drafted).
The big benefit to selecting Aho as an overager is that he was further along in his development than an 18-year-old player would be. The thought was that he’d be able to make an impact sooner rather than later given his previous professional experience and success. He started the season off with Bridgeport in the AHL, playing 40 games and scoring 9 goals and 29 points, and earned a call-up. In 22 games with the Islanders, Aho scored one goal and 3 assists, but his skating, decision making, and underlying numbers (including a positive CFRel%) have caught a lot of attention.
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Whether Aho will get any regular NHL time next season is up in the air, with defensemen Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Ryan Pulock, Thomas Hickey, Adam Pelech, and Scott Mayfield likely penciled in as the team’s six main defensemen, with a possible veteran defenseman added to the mix around training camp time. That leaves Aho as part of a group of outsiders looking in, likely starting the season in Bridgeport. It’s better to give him regular playing time than have him sit in the press box, but there’s a strong case to be made that Aho belongs on the team and deserves to have a bigger role, which our own Spizzwolf will be talking about in depth very shortly.
Aho has a lot to work on, but he is terrific exiting the zone when he grabs hold of the puck. Each of the real NHL centers (Barzal 55 to 49 CF%; Tavares 51 to 44; Cizikas 46 to 42) was better in terms of 5v5 possession with Aho on the ice than without, even taking zone-starts into account. His 47% CF is misleading, weighed down by time with Nelson and Quine at center. (Note that his 2.5 CF% Rel was second among NYI defensemen to Pulock's 3.2. In other words, Isles were terrible in terms of CF% in games Aho played this past season, without him on the ice.) Aho deserves to be in the mix this season.
It is extremely rare for a 5th-rounder to debut in the NHL in his draft+1 season. Aho took advantage of the rare opportunity; he didn't look out of place and showed good decision-making at NHL-speed. Still needs to work on the shot some, but early returns were really eye-opening.
Basically the European Thomas Hickey sans the physicality, Aho looks like he should be able to contribute at an NHL level and do so relatively quickly. He's probably already better than Pelech, but likely won't get an opportunity due to the contract situations.
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