Another year, another giant leap forward for Carolina Hurricanes rising superstar Sebastian Aho.
With every season, Aho has either built upon an already established strong suit in his game or added new wrinkles to an ever-growing arsenal of skillsets.
This year hasn’t featured some sort of dramatic development in what he wasn’t already able to do. He was already an elite 5-on-5 offensive producer, dynamic power-play weapon, and shutdown penalty killer with the ability to turn the tables and create offense.
2021-22 has seen Aho build upon what he was already great at it, but in addition to that, he has silenced one of the only real negative narratives that followed him - slow starts.
Whether it was fair or not, Aho was known for getting off to slow Octobers before hitting his stride and becoming one of the best players in the world as the season progressed. However, his start this year has been anything but slow as we near the season's midway point.
Through 35 games, Aho has scored 17 goals and racked up 42 points. It is his most prolific start to a season in his still very young career, and it is the most productive 35-game start to a season from a Hurricanes skater since 2005-06 when Eric Staal had 26 goals and 51 points through 35 games en route to this 100-point year.
As well as he played in the early weeks of the season, he has, of course, ramped things up even more as of late.
Over his last 17 games, Aho has nine goals and 24 points. He’s posted nine multi-point games over that span, further establishing himself as the leader of this Carolina offense.
There isn’t a combination involving him that hasn’t worked. He consistently elevates whoever he plays with, whether it’s top-six forwards like Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, Nino Niederreiter, and Martin Necas; depth players like Jordan Martinook and Steven Lorentz; or a rookie like Seth Jarvis, who has hugely benefited from playing next to one of the best players in the league.
Not to focus too much on the past, but the Hurricanes used to be a team that desperately needed a star forward who could take matters into his own hands and be the dynamic x-factor throughout the course of a regular season. Jeff Skinner showed signs of that, but those signs routinely faded away.
They haven’t had that guy since Staal, who is likely to captain the Canadian Men’s Hockey Team in the Olympics.
Aho is that guy. In all situations, he is this team’s leader.
If the Hurricanes play all 82 of their games and Aho continues to the pace he has been on, especially over the last two months, he has a legitimate shot at being the first Hurricane to reach the 100-point mark since Staal did it 16 years ago.
I wouldn’t bet against him.
The Remarkable Goal Drought
While Aho’s production has soared, Jordan Staal has come crashing back down to earth this season after what is fair to assume was a flash in the pan in 2021.
I’ve written numerous times about how last season was a conundrum. His metrics declined from years prior, but his point totals skyrocketed. It didn’t make much sense, but I always ended at the same conclusion: he worked hard for the team for a decade and never got the praise he deserved, so who cares about the metrics? He earned the results and recognition.
The evening out process has been brutal for him this season, though. The hockey gods wanted their revenge, and they have gotten it.
Staal is in the midst of a 29-game goal drought. This is the longest such drought of his NHL career. He hasn’t found the back of the net since October 29 against Chicago.
That is his only even-strength goal of the season, and it happened just ten seconds after a power play ended, and the Blackhawks hadn’t even gotten a line change in before the goal.
Since then, Staal hasn’t scored a goal across roughly 500 minutes of ice time and has just five assists.
So, what the hell is going on?
Well, the very obvious standout stat is his shooting percentage. Last season, he scored on 15.5% of his shots (16 of 103), his best mark as a Hurricane. This season, he’s coming in at a whopping 3% (2 of 66).
At 5-on-5, he has a 1.92 shooting percentage. Last year, it was 11.29%. To make matters even more confusing, he has 39 individual high-danger shot attempts this season in 36 games. He had just 43 iHDCF at 5-on-5 in 53 games last season. His average shots on goal per game at 5-on-5 have also jumped from 1.17 in 2020-21 to 1.44 in 2021-22.
His offensive-zone faceoff and start rates are also higher this season than last.
He has the sixth-highest individual expected goals for at 5-on-5 among all Carolina skaters at 5.96, but he has just one goal.
I’ll stop there. You get the point.
This is just another in the long line of statistically puzzling seasons for Staal. He is constantly getting high-danger chances, but there is a forcefield surrounding opponents’ nets.
His power-play usage has gone down this year, which is fair, considering that the team continues to bring in more talent on a year-to-year basis. Seven of his goals last season were on the man advantage, and he scored 3.07 power-play goals/60. Those numbers are down to one and 1.23 this season, respectively.
It hasn’t been all bad for him this year, though. His defensive metrics have rebounded from 2020-21, and he is still a top-tier penalty killer. The long-standing strengths in his game have been on display, but the offensive production he brought last year is gone, and it’s probably fair to assume that it won’t be coming back, at least not on that level.
Shooting 3% while generating a high rate of high-danger chances also isn’t sustainable, though. He won’t be on this drought for much longer.
Where the Hurricanes Stand
The Hurricanes led the league in points percentage as they enter a hectic portion of their season where they have a slew of games to make up.
Before that, here’s where the team stacks up to the rest of the league in a few essential categories.
Unsurprisingly, the team has been dominant at 5-on-5.
- 55.32 CF% (2nd in the NHL)
- 59,63 GF% (2nd in the NHL)
- 53.22 xGF% (8th in the NHL)
- 53.85 HDCF% (7th in the NHL)
- 9.49 SH% (4th in the NHL)
- .922 SV% (14th in the NHL)
The most significant standout stat on that list is the team’s 5-on-5 shooting percentage, which lands in the league's top-five.
If you’re familiar with the Hurricanes, you know that they’ve routinely found themselves scoring way below expected. The influx of high-skill players has made this turnaround happen, and it justifies the early days of Rod Brind’Amour’s tenure with the team when the club couldn’t score enough despite generating near-league-most chances.
I don’t think anyone needed me to point out that Brind’Amour’s system works, though.
The power play has put up equally impressive numbers.
- 26.6 PP% (5th in the NHL)
- 23.17 xGF (18th in the NHL)
- 68 HDCF (17th in the NHL)
- 17.34 SH% (3rd in the NHL)
- 31.11 HDSH% (3rd in the NHL)
- 4:49 PPTOI/GP (15th in the NHL)
The same story carries over to the power play, where the Hurricanes are excellent at converting on high-danger scoring chances.
This is also an interesting divergence from the norm for the team, though. They aren’t producing chances at an extraordinary rate, but when they do, they’re scoring. Though, if they got more power plays and didn’t score so often on those power plays, it would be fair to assume that they’d be getting more scoring chances overall.
Those are categories where it’s not so bad to be towards the middle of the pack—actual results reign supreme on the power play. As long as you’re scoring, no one cares about anything else.
The same line of thinking also goes to the penalty kill.
- 88.3 PK% (2nd in the NHL)
- 6:20 SHTOI/GP (most in the NHL)
- 19.15 xGA (8th in the NHL)
- 18.2 xGF% (1st in the NHL)
- 60 HDCA (9th in the NHL)
- 20 HDCF (1st in the NHL)
- .887 SV% (7th in the NHL)
- .730 HDSV% (24th in the NHL)
As good as Carolina’s power play is, I’d argue that their penalty kill is the real shining star of their special teams units.
Their seemingly decades-long perfect streak got broken recently, and they have since been less effective as a unit, but that doesn’t take away from how great they’ve been all year, especially under the pressure they’ve experienced.
The Hurricanes’ penalty kill is the most-used group in the NHL, and it isn’t even close. That is a problem that has plagued the club for several years now, and if this continues into the postseason, I believe it will be the thing that kills them yet again. They have to be better disciplined. There’s no way around it.
But let’s stay in the present.
What’s so impressive isn’t even the goal suppression, which on its own is remarkable. Instead, it’s the power kill, perhaps the most defining characteristic of the team’s penalty kill. Aho is the critical player in that philosophy and ranks among the best penalty killers in hockey because of it.
A 60 to 20 high-danger shot attempt differential for a penalty kill is absolutely bonkers. It’s ridiculous. It puts so much pressure on opposing power-play units and throws a massive wrench into the way they want to operate.
On the whole, what makes this team so good is their ability to play at a high level in every area of the game. It’s so hard to play to a team’s weakness when they have so few of them, and that’s what other teams have to deal with when they play the Hurricanes.