Look Ahead — 2022 Athlete of the Year: Sebastian Aho poised to be NHL’s breakout superstar

The Hurricanes center has already established himself as one of the top centers in the league, and he can cement his legacy with a Stanley Cup title

Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho, left, has already developed into one the NHL’s best players. In 2022, he can solidify himself as an elite one. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

When Rod Brind’Amour took over as coach of the Carolina Hurricanes before the 2018‑19 season, you could tell he was a bit unsure if a slight 6-foot center could handle the workload of being a No 1 center.

He doesn’t have any such concerns about Sebastian Aho now.

“The center position is so crucial,” Brind’Amour said back in late October. “It’s goaltending, it’s defense and then it’s the center position. And you have to have that because there’s so much responsibility there.

“We’ve been saying this now for a while — Seabass is a legitimate center now. He can go against anybody.”

While Aho doesn’t have the sculpted physique his coach had in his playing days — and, frankly, still has — he has built his game in the image of Brind’Amour.

Still just 24, Aho has become the Hurricanes’ most dangerous scorer, is an essential part of the team’s power play and penalty kill, was named alternate captain before this season and is consistently placed head-to-head against the NHL’s best centers.

And given that the best is surely yet to come, Aho is North State Journal’s prediction to be 2022’s Athlete of the Year.

Aho — who is nicknamed Seabass and Fishy — is in line to have the best statistical season of his career. Going into the Christmas break, he had 15 goals and 17 assists for 32 points in 26 games — a 100-point pace for an 82-game season. He’s also been incredibly durable, having missed just four games in January 2018 because of a concussion in the first five years of his career.

His Ironman streak ended 2½ weeks ago when he tested positive for COVID-19. The obstacle came at both a good and bad time for Aho. He was playing his best hockey at the time of his quarantine, having scored multiple points in each of the previous five games and being named the NHL’s Second Star for the week ending Dec. 12.

A 14-day quarantine for Aho became only 10 when the team was able to get him, rookie Seth Jarvis and team massage therapist Mike Maresca across the Canadian border and on a private plane back to Raleigh. Then, the Hurricanes had three games postponed in the week leading up to Christmas, minimizing the number of games Aho would miss while quarantined.

With a chance to further showcase himself in Beijing with Team Finland nixed after the NHL and NHLPA pulled out of the Winter Olympics because of COVID-19 concerns, Aho will have his success measured by how the Hurricanes perform this postseason.

After reaching the Eastern Conference Final in 2019, Carolina has been bounced in its second series in each of the last two postseasons. That certainly hasn’t been because Aho didn’t play up to expectations.

In 34 career playoff games — all from the last three years — he has 14 goals and 21 assists. That makes him one of just six players in the league who have played more than 20 postseason games in the past three seasons and averaged more than a point per game. Only four — Nathan MacKinnon (1.43), Nikita Kucherov (1.33), Mikko Rantanen (1.30) and Brayden Point (1.14) — have more than Aho’s 1.03 average. San Jose’s Logan Couture, with 20 points in 20 games, is the other.

More than anything, Aho’s competitiveness helps set the standard Brind’Amour wants from his players, which is why he was named an alternate captain at the start of this season.

“Guys look up to him in the room, and obviously his on-ice abilities just help his cause to being a good leader,” defenseman Jaccob Slavin, who also wears an A, said. “He’s passionate, he cares about the game, he plays the right way.

“Guys watch him play the game, it’s contagious and they want to be able to follow in his footsteps.”

With Aho leading the way, the Hurricanes have a chance to win their second Stanley Cup. The other championship team, back in 2006, was captained by his current coach.

And Brind’Amour is more than happy to hitch his team’s fate and his coaching legacy to a player who can “go against anybody.”