As the final buzzer rang out over the largest crowd that PNC Arena had seen in over a year, the Carolina Hurricanes were not the team celebrating in jubilation.
Instead they were looking on dejectedly at the Tampa Bay Lightnings who would be advancing to the Stanley Cup Semifinals after defeating the Canes in five games.
Among the onlookers was the franchise’s Finnish cornerstone, Sebastian Aho, his face full of disappointment.
“We had, in our minds, something different than this,” Aho said after the elimination. “I thought we were ready to take the next step. The next step is to be the best, right? I’m proud of the effort. I love the group. I enjoyed this year with these guys, but at the same time it’s not a step forward because we didn’t get the ultimate goal.”
A few moments later:
“It feels pretty bad right now. I don’t know… I feel not good right now. It sucks.”
And the final thought:
“I’ve got to be better.”
Those words held a lot of weight: Expectation, pride, respect and accountability.
Those words also showed a player with a heightened sense of maturity and one who seems destined .
“I’m glad he would say that,” said head coach Rod Brind’Amour following Aho’s statements. “You certainly don’t want to be satisfied because that’s not it. We were here to try to win. I love that that’s what he said, because we fell short of that. I think in looking just at him, he took a big step this year. He went toe to toe with one of the best players in the game this series, and I thought was right there with him. That’s where he took a step forward. I love that he’s all in to just win. That’s what we need around here, for sure.”
Aho’s a player that not only holds himself to a high standard, but also one who holds his teammates and the organization to those same lofty standards. Take his comments after clinching their first round series against the Nashville Predators for example.
“I didn’t think [we were good], especially in the first two periods,” Aho said after the comeback win against Nashville in Game 6 to win the series. “I felt like we weren’t quite there. The third period was an unbelievable effort through the lineup and in OT as well. It just shows that there’s no quit in this team and we have that confidence that we’re still in the game even when we’re down by a goal in the third period.”
“We can’t have 18 or 19 guys playing well, it has to be everyone.”
Even when it could have been a time of celebration, his thoughts were on where to improve and making sure that the team stayed focused on the task at hand.
But there was also the emphasis on his trust in his teammates and the fact that he knows he needs them at 100% as much as they might need him to be.
And his maturity can be seen in more than just his words as Aho is one of the most consistent talents on the team from his production down to his compete level.
His on-ice talents have always been evident as Aho has been the Hurricanes’ best forward and leading scorer for four straight seasons now after the Finnish superstar wound up being the steal of the 2015 draft — being selected in the second round, yet ranking fourth in the class in total points and second in goals.
“We know that he’s a star,” said Brett Pesce after the Canes’ Game 3 win in Tampa where Aho registered a point on every goal. “He’s a world class player and he seems to always come through for us. He’s our best player and he definitely showed it tonight.”
Aho has also been Carolina’s leading playoff scorer in each of the team’s last three appearances with him averaging slightly over a point per game in his postseason career so far.
But outside of the scoresheet, Aho became a much more noticeable presence on the ice this season with his complete three zone game, his buy-in to the forechecking scheme and his willingness to get involved in scrums.
These playoffs showed that Aho isn’t afraid to throw a hit or stand up for a teammate and his tenacity is starting to really shine.
“I just try to be myself,” Aho said when asked during exit interviews about taking on more of a leadership role. “It’s not like I think ‘now I have to lead,’ or anything like that. I just want to be the guy who leads by example and everyone can watch and kind of follow. Obviously, you have to earn trust from your teammates and stuff like that, so I just try to be myself every day and work as hard as I can and be as good of a player as I can. I think that’s going to be my way to lead.”
Despite being the third youngest member of this season’s starting roster, Aho is still the fourth longest tenured part of the Canes’ core and as such has maybe felt that he needed to mature a bit faster.
The consistency he has achieved only further proves that.
It has been pretty easy to forget just how young he is when you think of how long he’s been around and how much of the weight he carries as the 1C.
The maturity he shows not just on the ice, but in the way he carries himself and the way he talks in interviews, shows just how much he’s grown in his short time in the league. But what has never changed is that competitive spark.
“What I love about [Aho] is that he wants to win,” Brind’Amour said. “It’s all about winning the Stanley Cup. That’s it. I think every time you take one on the chin, I think it molds you for the next time. It toughens you up, and it’s part of the process. You don’t want to have it, I went through a ton of times. You’ve got to just keep sticking with it. I know he will.”
The Canes have had a lot of lead by example players over the years and Aho would fit that same mold. It wouldn’t be a forced role either, as Aho himself has stated that the transition has felt organic to him.
“It’s more up to me,” Aho said. “Every year, you want to get better in many ways and be a leader of the time, and take steps forward to help the team win more. I think it’s more natural as years go by and you get more experience. You earn that trust from your teammates and the coaching staff. I’d say it’s more of a natural thing than anyone saying you have to do this or this.”
With some free agency questions still up in the air in terms of who will be back with the Hurricanes for the 2021-22 season, there may be an opening for a new alternate captain and it seems like Aho is ready to fill that role and take the next step with the organization.