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By the Numbers: Sebastian Aho Could be a Franchise Center

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Former second round pick Sebastian Aho is putting up rookie numbers in line with those of some current top line pivots.

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Sebastian Aho tucks a shootout attempt in past Buffalo goaltender Anders Nilsson
Jamie Kellner

Depending on who you ask, the most pressing need that this team has is to find a legitimate first line center who can anchor that position for years the way that Eric Staal used to.

The general consensus is that this player isn’t currently in the organization. Most people view Victor Rask as a second line center over the long run. Jordan Staal, at the age of 28, isn’t a candidate to develop into that player. Nicolas Roy is a nice prospect, but he’s unproven and probably doesn’t have that high-end upside.

I would submit that this player probably already is in this organization, and that that player is rookie Sebastian Aho.

Can He Play the Position?

This is an important question. For someone to be a long-term first line center, it is rather necessary that they actually be able to play the position of center.

Aho is yet to play a game at this position at the NHL level, but he’s track record as a player prior making the NHL indicates that this is something he’s capable of.

In the 2015/2016 World Junior Championships, we saw him center that incredible first line for Team Finland with Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi in what was ultimately a gold-medal winning effort.

At the time, many made remarks that it was Aho who was the motor that made the line run, rather than his two super-prospect wingers.

So the precedent is there for Aho playing as a first line center for a successful team, but that was in an under-20 tournament. Can he do it against the best competition the world has to offer? That’s a different story, but it may have the same answer.

Last year in Finland, Aho played a bit of center in a season in which he put up 45 points in 45 games playing for Kärpät.

That by no means serves as a guarantee that Aho would be able to handle the rigor that comes with playing center in the NHL, but it certainly doesn’t hurt his chances.

How Does He Stack Up Against Other Young 1Cs?

For the purpose of reference, I created a peer group of 15 players drafted between 2006 and 2016 who either grew into or already are first line centers and compared their numbers from their rookie season to those of Aho.

The 15 players I suggested are: Aho, Matt Duchene, Jack Eichel, Alex Galchenyuk, Nathan MacKinnon, Tyler Seguin, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, John Tavares, Aleksander Barkov, Sean Monahan, Auston Matthews, Logan Couture, Ryan Johansen, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Claude Giroux.

I then took four statistics to see how they measured up against each other in terms of offense, defense, and ability to drive possession.

The four stats I chose are even-strength points per 60 minutes, corsi for percentage, corsi percentage relative to teammates, and expected goals against per 60 minutes relative to teammates.

Below is a table of each player’s ranking within the group, as well as the average of the four rankings in each metric to give us a sense of which players are the most well-rounded.

All of this data comes from Corsica and Stats.HockeyAnalysis.

Untitled

Player 5v5 P/60 CF% CF% Rel xGA/60 Rel Average Spot
Player 5v5 P/60 CF% CF% Rel xGA/60 Rel Average Spot
Sebastian Aho 1 8 2 7 1 4.5
Matt Duchene 2 9 13 8 9 9.75
Jack Eichel 3 10 12 11 13 11.5
Alex Galchenyuk 4 1 6 12 7 6.5
Nathan MacKinnon 5 5 11 10 14 10
Tyler Seguin 6 12 9 13 10 11
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 7 6 8 5 12 7.75
John Tavares 8 15 10 9 15 12.25
Aleksander Barkov 9 13 3 6 4 6.5
Sean Monahan 10 11 14 14 6 11.25
Auston Matthews 11 2 4 4 11 5.25
Logan Couture 12 4 1 2 8 3.75
Ryan Johansen 13 14 7 3 5 7.25
Evgeny Kuznetsov 14 7 15 15 3 10
Claude Giroux 15 3 5 1 2 2.75
Sebastian Aho is the most well-rounded teenage rookie “center” in a long time.

In terms of raw play-driving and defense relative to teammates, Aho is 2nd and 1st in this peer group respectively.

The fact that he’s better defensively, at least by this metric, at the age of 19 than the 20-year-old version of Claude Giroux and the 22-year-old version of Logan Couture is an impressive feat. He’s also ahead of players who are billed as

The fact that he’s in the middle of the pack in this group in terms of 5-on-5 production when expressed as a rate is nothing to sneeze at at all either.

While comparing the defensive metrics of wingers to centers isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, it’s important to note that not all of these players played the center position when they were rookies, either. Galchenyuk and Giroux didn’t, and neither did Kuznetsov nor Seguin.

All of those players were able to make the leap to playing center once they settled further into their NHL careers. So just because Aho isn’t playing center now doesn’t mean he won’t be able to do so effectively in the future.

If his position among his peers in these metrics is any indication, he’ll be able to do so with an incredibly high level of success if/when he makes the switch.

We know based on our viewings of Aho that he has the hockey sense and talent to do so necessary in spades. It will take time to figure out whether or not Aho can actually self-actualize as a legitimate top line center, but I think that outcome is a more likely one than you’d think.

That’s a good thing.