Aho’s future key to Hurricanes’ offseason

Whether the third-year pro is ready to be the team’s top center will determine Carolina’s decisions this summer

Whether or not Sebastian Aho is deemed ready to be the team’s top center will determine many of the moves the Hurricanes try to make this offseason. (Evan Habeeb / USA TODAY Sports)

RALEIGH — There are plenty of changes coming to the Carolina Hurricanes this offseason: the team needs to hire a new general manager, perhaps a new coach, and has promised to make changes to its roster.

The first two items will likely affect the third, but it’s still worth assessing where the Hurricanes stand with their roster and how the offseason could unfold based on those needs.


Carolina’s No. 1 need — really ever since Eric Staal’s production tailed off in his final couple years in Raleigh — is a top-flight center. The biggest question is if that player is already on the roster.

Sebastian Aho played most of the season at left wing and led the team in goals (29) and points (65), but coach Bill Peters and his teammates believe Aho can transition to the middle and be successful. The biggest concern is Aho’s size — he’s listed at 5-foot-11, 172 pounds — but he makes up for that with his competitiveness and on-ice intelligence.

Making Aho the top center does cause a logjam in the middle. Jordan Staal is an ideal shutdown pivot, leaving one other spot in the top nine for a center.

Victor Rask has four years and $16 million left on his contract and could be a candidate to be moved, but just had his second shoulder surgery in three years and is coming off a down season — meaning the return would be minimal or even detrimental.

Elias Lindholm played much of the end of the season at center, but if Rask stays he seems destined to be a right wing. Lucas Wallmark is a candidate as fourth-line center, as is promising 2017 first-rounder Martin Necas, who could creep into the top nine. It’s hard to see a place in the middle for UFA Derek Ryan or Marcus Kruger (one year left on his deal, but currently buried in Charlotte) without a major shakeup in this group.

Right wing

Teuvo Teravainen will likely be tethered to Aho, and Justin Williams seemed to fit on Staal’s right wing with Brock McGinn in a shutdown role at the end of the season. As previously mentioned, Lindholm — a restricted free agent — fits in here as the roster is currently constructed, but a deal involving him or Rask could make right wing or center a priority on the trade market.

Certainly there is an opportunity to add some fourth-line snarl here, perhaps a center/right wing to play 10-12 minutes and kill penalties. Don’t rule out Ryan returning, but Lee Stempniak is unlikely to be back.

Left wing

Where Aho fits is certainly important here. If he plays in the middle, that opens up space for a young player or new face. Valentin Zykov has the inside track on a spot, and Warren Foegele isn’t far behind. Both Janne Kuokkanen and Aleksi Saarela will battle for a spot in camp, too. McGinn is really the only lock to start the season at left wing.

Most interesting is the future of Jeff Skinner, who enters the final year of his contract and could be among those due for a “change of scenery,” as owner Tom Dundon put it. If he’s back, he’s in the top nine. If he’s traded, the team will surely be looking for a big return.

Joakim Nordstrom is one of Peters’ favorites, so his future (he’s an RFA) could hinge on the coach’s status. Phil Di Giuseppe, also an RFA, had a good end to the season but is a fringe NHLer that could stay or go.


Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce are sure things. Everything else is up for discussion. Justin Faulk had a down season and could be offered up as trade bait — Toronto? — and Noah Hanifin is due a new contract that could lead to friction on what kind of deal he wants and deserves.

Trevor van Riemsdyk was a suitable sixth defender, but is also an RFA like Hanifin and, when paired with Haydn Fleury, doesn’t offer much offense. One of them could be replaced with an offensive-minded blueliner — perhaps even former first-round pick Jake Bean — or a more physical defenseman. Klas Dahlbeck, also an RFA, is a suitable No. 7 guy.


Scott Darling will stay in Raleigh this offseason to work with strength coach Bill Burniston, a good indication the Hurricanes will give the high-priced goalie a shot at redemption. Cam Ward also wants to be back, but it’s hard to imagine the team returning with the same two goalies after another year of struggles in net. Would someone like UFA Carter Hutton be an upgrade?