RALEIGH — Outside of the perennial questions surrounding the goaltending, there was no bigger concern coming into the Carolina Hurricanes’ 2018-19 season opener than the team’s depth at center.
The team took another blow — or, ahem, cut — when one of its two experienced centers, Victor Rask, was lost indefinitely after requiring surgery following a kitchen accident involving a sweet potato, a knife and some bad luck.
That left veteran Jordan Staal as Carolina’s only experienced NHL center. Rookies Martin Necas — he of one game of North American experience — and AHL standout Lucas Wallmark were set to man the bottom two slots in the middle, and third-year pro Sebastian Aho was thrown into the fire to see if he was ready for a full-time move to center.
Less than two weeks later, the Hurricanes seem to have not only found the answer on Aho’s ability to play center, but the team may finally have a real first line.
Heading into Tuesday’s game at Tampa Bay, Aho ranked tied for third in NHL scoring with 11 points and tied with Chicago captain Jonathan Toews for second in even-strength points with nine, with both trailing only red-hot Auston Matthews (11).
“His play coming right into camp, he just looked like a different player,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said Tuesday morning. “That year of maturity … another offseason behind him to train and just grow into his body a little bit. He looks a little bit like he’s a different man than he was last year.”
Not that last year’s version Aho, or even the rookie installment from 2016-17, was a disappointment.
After a first season in which he had 25 goals and 29 assists, Aho followed it up last year by leading Carolina in scoring with 65 points, including 29 goals. He did that despite taking 16 games to register his first goal last year — an issue he also had as a rookie when he took 13 games to find the net.
With added responsibility at center, Aho didn’t wait until the second week of November to get his first goal as he had the previous two seasons.
“He got a goal early. That just kind of alleviated all that ‘no goals in October’ thing and freed him up,” Brind’Amour said.
Further helping Aho’s transition is his chemistry with linemate and countryman Teuvo Teravainen. The Finnish duo spent most of last season together and finished 1-2 in team scoring, with Teravainen leading Carolina with a career-high 41 assists and also personal bests for goals (23) and points (64).
With just one goal through the six games (an empty-net power play goal in the 8-5 win over the Rangers Oct. 7), Teravainen is still in search of his scoring touch, but the 24-year-old Finn has five assists and is a plus-5.
The newcomer to the line is power forward Micheal Ferland. Ferland — acquired from the Calgary Flames, along with Dougie Hamilton, at this summer’s NHL Draft — brings size and snarl to complement his Finnish linemates’ style and dazzle.
“He’s just a big body out there,” Aho said of the 6-foot-2, 208-pound Ferland. “He creates so much space on the ice. And, you know, he can make some plays. I think he’s way more skilled than people think he is.”
Ferland is off to a good start himself, with three goals and three assists through the weekend. But beyond the numbers, Ferland provides a much-needed physicality to a team that has lacked it most of the time in recent seasons.
“Being hard on their D and going hard to the net, taking the D-man to the net, try to create room for them,” Ferland said of his role in creating space for his linemates.
And if anyone should take liberties with the Hurricanes’ undersized stars?
“They know I’m out there for them to help them out if they ever need that,” he added.
Most impressively, perhaps, is the Hurricanes as a whole don’t seem satisfied with their 4-1-1 start, with Brind’Amour’s constant reminder that the team has much to improve on trickling down and out of his players’ mouth.
“I think we can still be a lot better,” Teravainen said. “I‘m not happy with how we’re playing, but it’s a good start still.”