Carolina Hurricanes fans, coaches, players, and executives alike held their breath Sunday evening into Monday afternoon, anxiously waiting for an update on young star Sebastian Aho’s health status after taking a shoulder to the head and a knee to the knee from Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano.
The results are in, and it doesn’t look great.
The Hurricanes announced on Monday that the team’s leading goal scorer and point producer suffered a lower-body injury (presumably, his knee) and a concussion.
While no surgeries will be required, Aho is ruled out indefinitely, which (in)definitely sent a shock wave through a fanbase that is well aware of the impact that the Finn’s absence could have on the team this season.
The second-year forward leads the team in goals, points, five-on-five points per 60, five-on-five primary points per 60 (20th in the NHL), and power play goals; ranks second in assists and power play points, and third among forwards in average time on ice per game.
Recently, his impact has been far greater than it had been at any point in his career. Excluding the January 6 game in Boston that saw him leave after just 5:59 of ice time due to injury, the 2015 second-rounder entered the Calgary game with a nine-game point streak (nine goals, 14 points) and had put up 16 goals and 29 points in 28 games.
The hole that this player leaves behind is massive. The only players that I consider to be in his realm of irreplaceability, at this moment in time, are Jordan Staal and Jaccob Slavin. That speaks volumes about Aho’s development this season as he has transformed into this team’s most dependable source of offense.
The Hurricanes, now in the midst of their bye week, have to adjust to life without Sebastian Aho and, with that in mind, there is one question in everyone’s mind:
How the heck are they gonna pull that off?
Well, I have been pondering that question, and I think that I have reached a very satisfying conclusion. Before we get to that, I feel that there are three realistic avenues that the team can go down. Each option could work. Each option could blow up in their face. Let’s discuss them.
Next Man Up
Utilizing NHL roster depth is one of the more likely options for the Hurricanes. Given his track record, being patient and seeing how things shake out, at least for a short period of time, seems like an option that Ron Francis would heavily consider, if not go to immediately.
Below, I have written out Carolina’s forward lines, including the TSA line with Aho. I threw together the Skinner, Ryan, Stempniak line that played very well last season and was expected to be together entering this season before Stempniak’s injuries, but most of the middle-six, or even the top-nine now without Aho, is pretty interchangeable. I did leave one name out, though:
Sebastian Aho - Jordan Staal - Teuvo Teravainen
Brock McGinn - Victor Rask - Justin Williams
Jeff Skinner - Derek Ryan - Lee Stempniak
Joakim Nordstrom - Marcus Kruger - Josh Jooris/Phil Di Giuseppe
You’ll notice that I didn’t include Elias Lindholm, who has missed time and was limited on Sunday after catching the locker room flu. After the bye week, he will jump right into that mix in the top-nine, but where does he fit with Stempniak back in the fold? Could it be as simple as throwing him in Aho’s spot and rolling Teravainen-Staal-Lindholm?
The clear issue with that example is the lack of a shooter. Lindholm is similar to Staal in that he hangs around the net. He has emerged as an extremely useful net-front guy this season, depositing a large portion of his goals via deflections and high-danger scoring chances while continuing to be an effective playmaker down low. That being said, he is averaging just 1.54 shots on net per game over his last 13 games and is on pace for his lowest average shot total (1.89 per game) since his rookie season despite logging the second highest ice time among Canes forwards.
Teravainen has a quick and deceptive release, but he also struggles to utilize it. Is that just a result of his playmaker-sniper dynamic with Aho? If he is tasked with shooting more during Aho’s absence, could he adjust and start being more aggressive?
Both Teravainen and Lindholm need to be more aggressive but, regardless of who their linemates are, what actually matters is finding a way to replace the offensive production of a player who has scored 30% of his team’s goals over the last ten games.
Leaning on your depth means also leaning on Jeff Skinner, whose current stretch of 35 games with just seven goals translates to a 16-goal pace over 82 games. Aho had netted 16 goals in his last 28 games, alone.
Skinner’s drought isn’t overly concerning. Over this 35-game stretch, he is shooting 5.6%. That number will inevitably go up in due time. The advanced numbers also paint a pretty picture. His 5-on-5 individual expected goals for and 5-on-5 on-ice expected goals for rank fourth and tenth, respectively, among all NHL players.
Being snake-bitten certainly hasn’t hurt his confidence in shooting the puck as he is on pace for a career-high 290 shots on goal this season. Regardless of how many shots he throws at the net, his goal total has to start rising at a steadier pace.
Discussing his team’s recent lack of success, Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said on Tuesday that “when you’re having good stretches, your best players are your best players”. Skinner needs to be one of Carolina’s best players. Maybe Stempniak will help that cause.
Also, I am curious to see how Teravainen will perform without Aho. Those two have been nearly inseparable since the start of the 2016-17 season. According to Corsica, the former Blackhawk has been a member of four Hurricane forward lines that have amassed 60+ mins of 5-on-5 ice time together. Aho has been on three of those lines.
Teravainen’s skill level clearly transcends just playing with Aho, but that duo has been remarkably dangerous this season and now it feels like the playmaker is losing his sniper on a team whose established star goal scorer has just five goals over the last two months.
Dipping into Charlotte
Scoring 3.47 goals per game this season, the youth-led Charlotte Checkers have the AHL’s third-ranked offense and present several options if the Hurricanes decide to look for scoring help.
Janne Kuokkanen and Valentin Zykov both have NHL games under their belt and are worth considering, but Kuokkanen’s ELC status makes him doubtful and Zykov’s league-leading 19 goals come with an asterisk - he’s shooting 29.7% and logging under two shots on net per game. Zykov did score in his NHL debut back in March.
Rookie winger Warren Foegele is now tied with Zykov for the lead in AHL goal-scoring and has continued to trend upward after being named the MVP of the OHL playoffs after he and Erie Otters won the league championship in 2017. Given how well he has played and his young age, keeping him in Charlotte and letting him compete and build on his success through the rest of the season seems like the safer option, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he got a look.
One name that does stand out to me is Aleksi Saarela. Upon joining the Checkers at the tail end of last season, he won the AHL player of the week award in his first week in the league. He finished with ten points in nine games and has been a dangerous, albeit streaky, goal scorer in his first full season in North America.
This season, he has netted 13 goals, including five in his last ten games. He leads the Checkers with 85 shots on net while taking just one minor penalty in 35 games. The Finnish winger has similar strengths to Sebastian Aho with regards to their hands, instincts, and skating ability. Like his fellow countryman, Saarela faired well in the Liiga, compiling 61 points in 100 games during his age 18 and 19 seasons against grown men in Finland’s top league.
Saarela, who turned 21 on January 7, got recalled by the team in early January as injury insurance but was sent back down a couple of days later. The organization has liked him enough to use him in that situation, so perhaps they would give him a shot in the top-nine in Aho’s absence. While he has had a rough time with injuries, he has played with bigger bodies in Finland, fared well in Charlotte, and plays a more similar game to Aho.
The Charlotte Checkers have never been as promising as they are now. It’s a young team producing offense at a high level, which bodes well moving forward. For now, though, it’s a mystery as to whether a player on that roster, be it Saarela or anyone else, could step in and make an impact that helps lessen the blow of losing Aho.
Exploring the Trade Market
When a major contributor to a playoff contender suffers an injury, exploring what may be available on the trade market is always a popular option.
For Ron Francis, trades have always been a way to build for the future, but things are different now. Instead of hoping for a good draft pick, the Hurricanes are hoping that they can sneak into the Eastern Conference’s top-eight.
Knowing what we know about this regime- while still keeping Tom Dundon’s arrival and potential influence in mind - a trade for a major asset seems pretty unlikely, which is why seeing Carolina’s name being mentioned as a possible fit for Mike Hoffman a few weeks ago was somewhat surprising.
For good reason, Hoffman is still one of the hottest names in the rumor mill. He is a first-line goal-scorer with one of the most lethal shots in the entire league. That being said, the St. Louis Blues have been the most talked about team pursuing his services. The Hurricanes have the assets to win a bidding war with St. Louis, namely a 2018 first-round draft pick, but would Francis enter any kind of bidding war for him? Nothing we have seen so far would suggest that the answer is yes.
Let’s look at some other options.
Fresh off of a 27-goal campaign, Michael Grabner is on pace to meet that number again on a Ranger team that is in the thick of the playoff race. Grabner is one of the best rumored rental options in the league and, in addition to being a goal-scoring threat, is among the best skaters in the league and an effective penalty killer that could play a major role in Carolina trying to get their penalty kill out of the basement.
On the flip side, the Rangers are competing with, and currently beating out, the Hurricanes for a playoff spot. If they don’t plan on re-signing him, they could trade the pending UFA and still go for a playoff spot. If they do, trading that player to a divisional rival doesn’t really make sense for them.
Arizona is in the midst of a brutal season and they look prepped and ready to sell off some of their pieces. While Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the big name there, 25-year-old winger Tobias Rieder may be worth a look for a team like Carolina.
He entered the season as a back-to-back 15-goal, 35-point man but has seen a big drop off in his numbers this season. Are those down numbers his fault or are they just a result of him being on a horrible team? If a team thinks that it is mainly because of the Coyotes’ struggles, they might be able to get a decent bargain on a player who could step in be a decent contributor and have control of his rights in the offseason due to his RFA status. Maybe that team could be the Hurricanes.
Unless the front office thinks that one of their young AHL players could produce in a similar fashion, which they probably do.
Trade deadline mercenary Tomas Vanek, now a member of the Vancouver Canucks, is still plugging along. With him, you get the goal upside and a dangerous powerplay piece, but good luck trying to get him active in the defensive zone. He has 13 goals and 32 points this season and has scored 17+ goals in each of his 13 seasons in the NHL. With Vancouver falling toward the bottom of the standings, a draft pick, prospect, or prospect/draft pick combo may convince them to trade a player that they signed solely for the purpose of trading.
With that in mind, Vanek seems like a horrible fit in Bill Peters’ system and that kind of player would likely end up on a real contender to make a run in the playoffs. The Hurricanes aren’t that team.
So, how can the Carolina Hurricanes replace Sebastian Aho?
No one else on the NHL roster is the player that Aho is, and that includes Jeff Skinner. Now, if Skinner scores 17 goals in 17 games, things look a little better, but are we about to count on that kind of production? I wouldn’t.
The Checkers have been a tremendous offensive team this season and they have many pieces that will contribute at the NHL level in the very near future, but none of those players bring anything close to what Aho does, at least not right now.
Making a trade seems incredibly unlikely. I love Grabner and think he’d be a perfect fit in Carolina, but this organization is not in a position to bet on themselves and give up a valuable asset, especially with Aho on the shelf.
The same goes for Mike Hoffman, to an extent. If Aho was healthy and a playoff berth looked far more promising, I’d give up a first-round draft pick and a prospect for his services in a heartbeat. He is a game-breaking player with years left on his deal but, with so much uncertainty surrounding this team now, I don’t know if he’s necessarily worth that bidding war with teams that have real Stanley Cup chances.
Barring a great deal coming across Ron Francis’ desk (i.e. Peter Chiarelli calls him), now seems like the worst time to swing a trade that involves major future-based assets (first-round draft picks and highly-touted prospects) going the other way.
I think that the organization has to be safe - bump Lindholm up into the top-nine and try to find a lineup that works. If that doesn’t go well, bring up a guy like Saarela or Zykov or whatever forward they like the most, plug them into the top-nine, and then see if that works.
If neither of those work, things likely won’t look good for them and the trade deadline might not be as exciting as we had hoped.
The Hurricanes have been put in an almost unwinnable situation and a lot will have to go their way in order to make up for a loss as big as Sebastian Aho. Right now, I think they just have to hope that he can get healthy as soon as possible.
In the meantime, they’ll have to make do with what they have and hope for the best.