Hurricanes answer at center might already be on the roster in Aho

Coach Bill Peters said they want to give their standout rookie a look in the middle

James Guillory—USA TODAY Sports
Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho celebrates his third period goal in a 4-3 win over the Rangers on March 9.

RALEIGH — Last Thursday’s 4-3 win over the New York Rangers had a ton of storylines. Goalie Cam Ward earned a win for the first time in nearly five weeks, Valentin Zykov scored in his NHL debut, and Sebastian Aho got the 19th and 20th goals of his rookie campaign.

But the most important moment may have come after the game when coach Bill Peters, asked about Aho’s rookie season, said the team is considering giving the 20-year-old a shot at another position.

“We’re toying with the idea of possibly putting him at center before the end of the season to have a look at him there, but not going to do that for sure until we get all our bodies back,” Peters said.

Aho has all the makings of a first-line talent, but this is the first time the team has really floated the idea of playing him at center. The proclamation early on that Aho would be an NHL winger was always a curious one because the Hurricanes have in the past often talked of moving their promising forwards to the middle.

Jeff Skinner, a center during his time with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, has been primarily a left wing since coming into the league in 2010 but the Hurricanes often talked about transitioning him to center. It never really happened, with Skinner just getting some scant time in the middle before permanently settling in on the wing.

Elias Lindholm has also been discussed as a future center — the team still lists him at center on its roster — but he too has spent the majority of his career on the wing, though has been used frequently in faceoffs when paired with a left-handed center.

Newcomer Teuvo Teravainen has bounced between center and wing this season, another young Hurricanes player who “could” play in the middle.

Now Aho is the latest to get the “maybe he’s a center” tag. And he has credentials. Aho — already selected 35th overall by Carolina the summer before — famously centered the best line at the 2016 World Junior Championships, playing between wingers Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi on Finland’s gold medal team. The trio were the top three scorers of the tournament, and Aho’s two linemates wound up going second (Laine) and fourth (Puljujarvi) overall in last summer’s draft.

Carolina’s lack of a No. 1 center — and their depth on defense —has made them a much-rumored candidate to pursue Colorado center Matt Duchene, and general manager Ron Francis has admitted he’s looking for a game-changing player.

“I think every team’s looking for that guy, especially if he’s a centerman,” Francis said while meeting the media following the trade deadline. “I think that’s a piece that a lot of teams — you look at what it’s done for the Oilers and the Leafs, being able to get [Connor] McDavid and [Auston] Matthews in those positions the last couple years. So I think everybody’s looking for those kind of high-end guys, particularly centers, to drive your team.”

Enter Aho, who is arguably already the team’s most exciting player and one that surely Peters would love to have the puck more often. That can be accomplished with a move to center. Furthermore, Aho has already proven he is a defensively responsible player —— a necessity at center, especially in Peters’ system —— and the early returns on him as a penalty killer are good.

It seems like a no-brainer. Carolina could move Aho to the middle and then focus instead on adding a winger (enter the Avalanche again, where left wing and captain Gabriel Landeskog is a much better fit than Duchene given his contract and the added size, leadership and sandpaper he’d bring to Raleigh). However there are still concerns about changing Aho’s position. For one, Aho is definitely small (listed at 5-foot-11, 172 pounds) for an NHL center, particularly a potential No. 1 pivot. But even the modern NHL, there are examples of smaller players thriving as top centers. Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) transitioned to the middle a couple seasons into his career and has been an elite player for nearly a decade. The Wild used Aho’s countryman Mikael Granlund (5-foot-10, 184 pounds) as their No. 2 center much of his career with decent results (nearly a 50-point pace the last three years). But upon adding Eric Staal in free agency last offseason, Granlund moved to wing and has responded with his best NHL season.

There’s also the possibility of putting too much on the young Finn’s shoulders too soon. Would the pressure of being a top center be overwhelming? Maybe, but if there’s one thing that’s clear about Aho it’s he handles pressure well. From his overtime goal in Game 7 to clinch a second-straight Finnish league title for Karpat in 2015 and his dominance at the World Juniors last season to his 20-goal rookie NHL campaign, Aho has proven time and again he’s up to big challenges. His biggest challenge — auditioning as Carolina’s possible first-line center — awaits.