NSJ Newcomer of the Year: Hurricanes’ Aho offers hope for the future of struggling franchise

Finnish phenom’s 24 goals were second most by a rookie since the franchise moved to North Carolina

The 24 goals, 25 assists and 49 points put up by Sebastian Aho during his first NHL season rank behind only Jeff Skinner’s numbers during his Calder Trophy-winning 2010-11 campaign as the best by a rookie since the franchise moved to North Carolina. (James Guillory / USA TODAY Sports)

On Oct. 28, 2016, Sebastian Aho was playing just his seventh career NHL game. He hadn’t yet scored — that wouldn’t come until more than two weeks later in game No. 14 — but there he was, at age 19, on the ice after the New York Rangers had pulled their goalie and the Carolina Hurricanes tried to hold on to a 3-2 lead.

The Hurricanes did win, and Carolina coach Bill Peters gave a simple answer as to why the rookie the team had such high hopes for was on the ice in a critical defensive moment.

“It says I trust him, that’s what it says. … That’s a 19-year-old kid,” Peters continued, “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 has continued to trust Aho, who blossomed into a nightly threat the second half of last season and — despite other slow start that saw him wait until the 17th game of the season to score — in the opening months of the 2017-18 campaign for a team perennially desperate for offensive talent.

The first signs Aho could be a special player came way back in the summer of 2015 when he dominated the Hurricanes’ development camp scrimmage, scoring a hat trick before heading back to Finland for the season.

A little more than two years later, Aho is a cornerstone of the franchise. Despite being one of the smaller players in the league — he is listed at 172 pounds, and only eight other current NHL players weigh less — Aho’s fierce competitiveness and ability to wisely use leverage make him “play bigger” than his 5-foot-11 frame.

And the guy coaches and teammates call “Sea Bass” — based on a combination of Sebastian and a tribute to Cam Neely’s cameo character in “Dumb & Dumber — or its derivative, “Fishy,” oozes talent.

And it’s not just him. There have never been as many prolific young Finnish players in the NHL as there are right now. Aho’s teammate Teuvo Teravainen, Florida’s Alexsander Barkov, Winnipeg’s Patrick Laine and Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen are just a sampling of the talent Finland has produced in recent years, with more on the way (write down Nashville 2017 first-rounder Eeli Tolvanen as one to watch).

Aho has the potential to be as good as any of them. While he may not have the once-in-a-lifetime release of Laine or the power forward build of Barkov, Aho makes up for it with a hunger to compete and win. Those traits will benefit the Hurricanes as they push for the playoffs — and make Aho the North State Journal Newcomer of the Year.

Others considered: Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, Duke basketball forward Jayson Tatum