Aho putting together rookie season to remember

19-year-olds freshman campaign rivaled by few past Hurricanes

James Guillory—USA TODAY Sports
Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho celebrates his hat trick goal Jan. 31 against the Philadelphia Flyers at PNC Arena.

RALEIGH — If there’s one thing the Carolina Hurricanes have learned from this season, it’s that they have an emerging star in rookie forward Sebastian Aho.Aho got his 17th goal of the season Saturday afternoon in Dallas, one shy of Jeff Skinner for the team lead as the Carolina entered their league-mandated five-day “bye week.”Despite his success, Aho has still been in the background when the league’s top rookies are mentioned. The Toronto trio of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine, Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk and Columbus defensemen Zach Werenski have all been frequently mentioned — and justifiably so — as the top of the 2016-17 freshman class.But Aho deserves a place at the table even if he doesn’t have the recognition given to the rookies that are competing in the bright spotlight of Canadian markets, have an NHL pedigree (like Tkachuk) or are part of the league’s surprise team in the Blue Jackets.Aho also didn’t have the same hot starts as Matthews and Laine — the top two picks in last summer’s draft — and he went without a goal in his first 13 games before breaking through with a two-goal, one-assist night on Nov. 12. Since then, only Matthews has scored more goals than the 19-year-old Aho.But he is currently on pace for 26 goals and 23 assists, and given his uptick in play following his season-opening 13-game goalless streak, it’s possible for him to crack 50 points or even reach 30 goals.Since getting his first goal in Game 14, Aho has averaged 0.42 goals per game. If he maintains that pace in the season’s final 29 games, he would score 12.18 goals — rounded it down to an even dozen and that’s 29 on the year.That likely won’t be enough to get him true consideration for the Calder Trophy, but he’s already established himself as one of the best Hurricanes rookies ever.Jeff Skinner’s 2010-11 season (31 goals, 32 assists), a year that earned him top rookie honors, stands as the benchmark, but Aho is on the cusp of being the runner up. The Finn’s rookie campaign has already surpassed Victor Rask (11 goals, 33 points in 2014-15) and should move past Erik Cole (16 goals, 40 points in 2001-02) with ease.After that is Shane Willis, the lone Carolina rookie to notch 20 goals before Skinner did it, with 44 points. Barring slump or injury, Aho has both marks within reach. Also worth noting is Willis started his breakout rookie campaign in 2000-01 at age 23 with 163 games of IHL, AHL and NHL experience already under his belt.On top of Aho’s production, age and inexperience in North America, he has also been a trusted defensive player — and not just recently.Following the 3-2 win over the Rangers in Carolina’s home opener on Oct. 28 — Aho’s seventh NHL game — coach Bill Peters was quick to answer why Aho was on the ice at the end of the game with New York pressing for the tying goal and their goaltender pulled.”It says I trust him, that’s what it says,” Peters said. “That’s a 19-year-old kid who’s got an unbelievably bright future and a bright hockey mind, and we’re going to continue to make sure he understands what we need and want from him in all those situations.”Peters hasn’t wavered in using Aho in key situations, and the winger has often played — including most recently opposite Elias Lindholm — on Jordan Staal’s wing. That means lining up against the other team’s best forwards each night, especially at home.It’s not coincidence the times Aho and Staal have teamed up resulted in some of the best stretches by any line the team has put together this season.If Carolina is going to make a push for the postseason, they’ll need both — especially their prized rookie — leading the way starting at home Friday against Colorado.