Last season, the New Jersey Devils emerged as surprising playoff contenders, and while they got quickly booted from the first round by the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was still a fairly remarkable season.
Taylor Hall led that surge. He closed out the year with 39 goals and 93 total points, almost singlehandedly dragging his Devils team into the postseason. That effort earned him the Hart Trophy for the NHL’s most valuable player.
Is a similar story in the works with the Carolina Hurricanes and Sebastian Aho?
There are a lot of similarities between the two. Like New Jersey in 2017-18, Carolina is on pace to finish the year in a playoff spot despite the odds being stacked against them. The Canes are being led by Aho, who is on pace for... you guessed it... 93 points (the same number of points Hall had last season).
An interesting way to look at is finding out how much of the team’s offense runs through a specific player. Again, Aho and Hall are identical in that regard, at least in point production. Hall had 93 points and the Devils scored 244 goals, meaning he earned a point on 38% of the Devils’ goals. As for Aho, 77 points and the Canes have scored 204 goals... That’s 38%. The two players’ 5-on-5 primary point numbers are also within one percentage point of each other.
If we’re playing that game, then Aho is having an almost identical impact, offensively, as Hall had. That game isn’t necessarily fair, though, or even the most accurate way to compare them. Simple counting numbers don’t always paint a reliable picture.
Aho is a center. Hall is a winger. Aho has also seen nearly a minute more ice time on average, thanks to his usage in every situation - even strength, power play, penalty kill, etc.
I’d go out on a limb and say that Sebastian Aho has been as valuable to the Hurricanes this season as Taylor Hall was to the Devils a season ago, which means Aho should win the Hart.
The 2018-19 season has seen a huge offensive breakout. There are already 12 (!) players with 80+ points and no team has played more than 70 games. Aho is very close to that 80-point mark and could reach it as soon as tonight against the Avalanche.
You have to look at the numbers from this season, and the numbers suggest that Aho won’t get much of any consideration for the Hart Trophy, to no fault of his own. Nikita Kucherov probably has that trophy in the bag. He has 110 points (!!!!!!) in 69 games played. He has chipped in a point on 41% of Tampa’s 266 goals. That’s insane. Even factoring in the immense firepower that the Lightning have, Kucherov is, in my eyes, the clear front runner for the Hart.
After Kucherov, you have Patrick Kane. Chicago has made a bit of a run as of late, thanks to Kane and his 97 points. He is second in the league in points, behind only Kucherov. Then, there’s Connor McDavid. If this award was given out solely on how valuable he is to his team, it should be renamed the McDavid Trophy. He has factored into 50% of Edmonton’s goals this season. That team is nothing without him. That team is probably less than nothing without him. Barring a huge stretch run, the Oilers aren’t a playoff team, though, which is something that plays into this.
The list is longer than just those three, too - Johnny Gaudreau, Nathan MacKinnon, Mitch Marner, Blake Wheeler, etc.
Is Sebastian Aho one of the most valuable players in the league to his team? Absolutely, he is. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to envision him getting the Hart Trophy. Though, maybe a strong finish could put him in the conversation to be a nominee - if the Canes make the playoffs. Again, it’s just a testament to how great a select number of players have been this season. In a lot of years, Aho could follow in Hall’s footsteps, but not in 2018-19.
Better luck next year, Fishy. This is just the beginning for Aho. He’ll have more chances to reel in some hardware.
When Petr Mrazek is hot, he is really HOT.
Unbelievable finish in Florida. Petr Mrazek comes up with two unreal plays. Sebastian Aho wins it. WOW. pic.twitter.com/tU7HnxqPhu— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) March 3, 2019
The pending UFA has won five consecutive starts and has a .935 save percentage. Over his last 20 starts, he is 13-6-1 with a .911 save percentage and three shutouts. That’s pretty outstanding. With his recent breakout, it’s becoming more and more obvious that it really was Carolina’s putrid penalty kill that sank his numbers early in the season.
I wrote about the Hurricanes’ goalie situation a couple of weeks ago, and with how well Mrazek has played and how much energy he brings, I think it’s hard to let him walk out the front door on July 1. With every brilliant effort, there’s a growing sense of how important he is to the direction of this team. To boot, he doesn’t want to leave.
“The organization is content with me,” Mrazek told iDNES.cz, a Czech news outlet (translated via google translate with clarifications from myself in parenthesis). “And if it goes on like this, I believe we will agree on (a contract extension). If it (was up to) me, I would stay. The team is young and in a few years it will be better. With (my) girlfriend we like it here, so why change it voluntarily?”
Mrazek just turned 27, he has a good relationship with goalie coach Mike Bales, he is confident and energetic, and he seems like a no-brainer to keep around. Two years in the ballpark of $2.5-3 million feels about right for him. A strong finish (and perhaps a playoff run...) could bump that figure up a little bit, too.
I’m sure Martin Necas wouldn’t mind having another Czech-born player in the locker room next year, as well. He’s not an elite goalie, but he’s a very good fit on this team and in this organization.
Playoffs? You kiddin’ me? Playoffs?
Over the next three-and-a-half weeks, the Hurricanes will play 16 games. Those games will decide their season.
Truth be told, you have to really like this team’s chances right now. The Canes have been neck-and-neck with Pittsburgh for a couple of weeks now, with both teams leapfrogging over each other on a daily basis. A win tonight for the Canes would put them back into third in the division and push the Pens into a wild card spot.
The second tier of bubble teams in the East consists of Columbus and Montreal. Carolina has two more points than both Columbus and Montreal. Their lead on the Habs is strengthened in that the Canes also have a game in hand. It’s a four-team race for three playoff spots, and the Islanders’ struggles as of late might just make things more interesting.
For the first time in almost a decade, the Canes are in the playoff hunt in mid-March AND they’re an odds-on favorite to make it in. That’s pretty exciting, and you have to give credit to the leadership core of Rod Brind’Amour behind the bench and the likes of Justin Williams and Sebastian Aho on the ice. They’ve led this Cinderella story.
As it stands now, it looks like the clock won’t strike midnight on April 6 for the Canes. This is the Hurricanes we’re talking about, though, so take nothing for granted. It’s their playoff spot to lose, and they could very easily lose it if they let up off the gas.