New York Islanders defenseman Sebastian Aho had not played in an NHL game since March 18th of 2018. But that all changed this week when Noah Dobson made his way onto the NHL’s COVID List Sunday.
Aho suited up for that game and has remained in the lineup in Dobson’s absence, which has gone on now for three straight games.
So far the young defenseman has given us some signs where his development is at the moment, but overall the jury is still out. However, given the defensive-minded system that head coach Barry Trotz has instilled here, I do not think Aho is ready to be an everyday NHL player on the island.
But let’s start with the positives so far in his game.
One thing we have seen over his three games is that the Swedish defenseman has an offensive mind. Whether he is at the point or deep in the offensive zone, his initial instinct is to get a shot on goal. Thus far, in limited minutes, averaging 13:07 per game, Aho has picked up a goal and an assist. In Thursday’s 4-3 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, he showcased the shot accuracy that he has in his arsenal.
We have ourselves a game pic.twitter.com/P7fas59u4z
— Isles on MSG+2 Tonight (@IslesMSGN) March 19, 2021
You cannot place that shot in a more perfect spot, and this was a goal the Islanders desperately needed on Thursday at that point in the game. For a team where hesitation happens more often than not, this is what you want to see when a shooting lane becomes available.
Aho also made an intelligent move here by waiting for the opportune time to jump in on the play.
Besides the offensive awareness, Sebastian Aho has also displayed strong skating ability. He has often broken away from opposing defensemen along the boards or, like on the goal above, used his skating to create time and space. This was evident early on Thursday, as Aho came around the end boards with speed and tried to wrap the puck in on Philadelphia Flyers netminder Carter Hart. Without the puck, Aho still uses his legs, as he won a few puck races.
Unfortunately, these positives do not outweigh the negative aspects of his game.
For starters, Aho stands at just 5’10, which means that he is undersized at the NHL level. He cannot play a style like a Ryan Pulock, who can use his 6’2 frame to body off opposing forwards.
Because of this, Aho has struggled in his own zone thus far. He has been overmatched, particularly against Philadelphia, in which he was on the rink for two goals against and committed two turnovers. While the goals were not specifically due to his wrongdoing, it was all about the communication in his own zone, which was rather lackluster.
On Sunday, his first game of the season, Aho played real strong despite one lousy turnover. That turnover came during the second period in the defensive zone. Aho picked up the puck off to the right side of Ilya Sorokin, but New Jersey Devils forward Janne Kuakkonen quickly collapsed on him.
Feeling the pressure, Aho tried to throw a backhand pass to Mathew Barzal, who was skating out of the Islanders zone toward the left-side boards. But the soft pass was picked-off, and Yegor Sharangovich eventually scored on that shift.
YS! YS! YS!
🍏: Kulikov pic.twitter.com/q4zUAMAWBm
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) March 14, 2021
In his own zone, Sebastian Aho is not thinking at a quick enough rate just yet. I’m not saying he does not have the ability to do so, but it will probably take some time, given how long it has been since he has played in the NHL.
And not being able to think quickly has led to him taking penalties on occasion.
In the third period of Tuesday’s game, Aho was bodied off the puck by Washington Capitals’ forward Richard Panik. As he tried to win the puck back, he held onto the forward and was called for it. The Islanders had allowed two power-play goals already up to this point, and a third would have been the dagger.
The Islanders struggling penalty kill came up when they had to and got Aho off the hook in that particular instance. Still, it didn’t change the fact that it was not an intelligent play by Aho.
The difference between the AHL and the NHL is massive, particularly the speed of the game. In his own zone, Aho has seemed overwhelmed and struggled with the physical aspect of playing defense against the very best, but he also has struggled with the mental side of the game.
This has led to three turnovers in three games, one of them being the major mistake above in the video.
With Noah Dobson still off the roster, Sebastian Aho needs to make the most of his opportunities. He seems to be able to handle the offensive side of the puck, and even though he has played alongside the defensive-minded Andy Greene, Aho still needs to be stronger in his own zone.
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