RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes have one trophy on their minds as the postseason approaches. That doesn’t mean there isn’t time to honor the best of the regular season both on and off the ice.
The Carolina chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association announced its two annual awards Thursday, with Sebastian Aho being selected as the team’s Most Valuable Player for the fourth straight season and rookie goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic being honored with the Josef Vasicek Award, which recognizes cooperation with the local media.
The PHWA chapter had unveiled its choice for the Bill Masterton Trophy on Monday, selecting captain Jordan Staal as the Hurricanes player who best exemplifies sportsmanship, perseverance and dedication to hockey. Staal, now a two-time nominee, was one of three finalists for the award in 2018.
Aho’s selection as team MVP makes him the only four-time winner of the award, which was first presented in 2001. Former captain Eric Staal won the award three times, while Justin Faulk, Cam Ward and Ron Francis are two-time winners.
In his fifth NHL season, the 23-years-old Aho led the Hurricanes in scoring for the fourth consecutive regular season, leading Carolina in goals (24), assists (33) and points (57) in 56 games. He and Nino Niederreiter were the team’s only players to dress for every game this season.
“I just want to be a good player and be a good leader on this team and do my best to help my team to win,” Aho said in an interview Wednesday with members of the PHWA.
While Aho’s point totals are often what makes headlines, it’s the center’s all-around play that has made him a key cog on one of the NHL’s top teams. And he’s had a good teacher in coach Rod Brind’Amour, a two-time Selke Trophy winner who has helped him become a better defensive player.
“He never really coached too much on the offense,” Aho said of the third-year coach, “it’s all the defensive side of the game. … He helped me every day, and I’m still learning. I want to be a better player, better center, do everything better.”
Aho’s drive to improve is not based on individual accolades but rather his quest to help the Hurricanes win its second Stanley Cup.
“Those losses the last couple years, they built a hunger, and we are very hungry,” Aho said of the team’s last two playoff runs. “We have been trying to learn from those past years and just do better this year.”
If Carolina is going to go even deeper in this year’s postseason, it will need its goaltenders to step up. And none of the Hurricanes’ three netminders had a better season than Nedeljkovic.
The rookie started the year as Carolina’s third goalie and even went unclaimed through waivers in mid-January. But a thumb injury to No. 1 goalie Petr Mrazek opened the door for Nedeljkovic, and the 2014 second-round pick stormed through it with a 15-5-3 regular-season record and a league-leading goals-against average (1.90) and save percentage (.932).
Nedeljkovic was also a go-to player off the ice for the media because of his candid and thoughtful answers, earning him the award named for the late Josef Vasicek. Vasicek died in a Sept. 7, 2011, plane crash that killed 44 people, including 26 players and three coaches from the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, just days before the 1998 fourth-round pick’s 31st birthday.
Nedeljkovic’s willingness to talk in-depth about the game on and off the ice has been particularly helpful during a season in which the media has only interacted with players and coaches via Zoom calls.
“It’s been different,” Nedeljkovic said. “It’s been an adjustment you have to make, but I don’t think there’s anything like doing person-to-person interactions. … You don’t get maybe the subtle sarcasm (on Zoom), the funny moments that you will get in-person.”
It’s not often a rookie becomes a focal point for a top team, and it’s even rarer for him to become one of the more sought-out interviews because of his candor. Nedeljkovic did both.
“I think it’s just trying to be as honest as you can and just trying to be real,” Nedeljkovic said of his approach with the media. “I took a few public speaking classes in school a few years ago, so I think that had something to do with it a little bit. And then just being brought up, my mom and dad were big on just speaking your mind but being polite at the same time and just trying to be yourself.”
Even if that meant talking about his hardest moments — like when he was waiting, bags packed, to find out if he would be claimed on waivers.
“That morning, I didn’t really eat,” he said. “I was just kind of looking at the clock, staring at the clock from 9 o’clock till noon. It just seemed to stop at some points, didn’t want to go anywhere.
“So it’s been anxious, a bit stressful. But I was obviously very happy with how things turned out.”
Staal was announced as one of 31 nominees for the Masterton Trophy on Monday. The Hurricanes captain, at age 32, is having arguably his best NHL season. If Aho is the team’s star player, Staal is its glue.
“He’s everything for us and epitomizes what we’re all about,” Brind’Amour said.
Staal plays on Carolina’s top penalty kill and power play units, and he remains the Hurricanes’ top defensive forward and faceoff man. He was nominated for the award four years ago following a season in which he and his wife, Heather, lost a daughter to a birth terminal defect shortly after her birth.
Staal’s strength in the face of the unimaginable that season only further exemplified his dedication to the sport that is still evident now in his 15th.
“It’s been my life, for the most part,” Staal said of hockey. “When it’s your job and it’s all you think about growing up, and to realize your dream and then have to do it day in and day out, and work out and keep getting better. It’s given me a lot.
“The game has been, it’s been amazing. … Everyone that you run through have all been amazing people. The game of hockey, it’s been a fun ride.”