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Scouting Sebastian Aho

How the Hurricanes tracked, analyzed and drafted Aho

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes /

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First impressions aren't always what they seem.

Take Sebastian Aho, who was a small, lanky teenager when the Carolina Hurricanes first scouted him. Those size concerns could have and likely did make certain prospective National Hockey League suitors a bit trepidatious.

But the Hurricanes were diligent in their scouting process, tracking and analyzing Aho from when he was a 16-year-old underage player through his draft-eligible season. What they found was a player who was skilled beyond his years, a player who didn't see his figure as a hindrance.

This is that story, the story of how the Hurricanes came to covet this slight, soft-spoken kid from Finland who has since developed into one of the NHL's premier young stars.

Karpat, 2013-14

The Hurricanes began logging scouting reports on Aho in the 2013-14 season, when he was just 16 years old. He played the majority of the season with Karpat's U-20 junior team, and he was dominant on the scoresheet with 59 points (25g, 34a) and a plus-28 rating in 44 games. Aho even skated in three games with the big club in Liiga (Finnish Elite League) and recorded an assist.

"We identified Sebastian earlier on," Canes Director of Scouting Tony MacDonald said. "At that early stage, we saw him as a smaller, skilled guy."

U-18 World Championship, April 2014

A few months shy of his 17th birthday, Aho was named to Finland's roster for the U-18 World Championship, held that year in his home country. The Rauma, Finland, native skated in five games and recorded three points (2g, 1a).

"He was a little guy, but he played really well," said Robert Kron, who is now the Canes' lead European scout. "To me, he looked special and different from the other kids."

Karpat, 2014-15

From playing with Karpat in Liiga to the various tournaments in which the 17-year-old competed, Aho's draft-eligible campaign impressed the Hurricanes and assuaged any concerns they might have had about his size.

"He was the kind of kid you were drawn to," MacDonald said. "He was a player who seemed to evolve and get better in increments as the season went on."

"He had really good hockey sense and was really competitive," Kron said. "He was a little guy who figured out the game very quickly. At the same time, he wasn't afraid to go to the corners, play with the puck and make plays. At that age, it was impressive, especially playing with men."

MacDonald tracked Aho quite a bit in the 2014-15 season. So did Sheldon Ferguson. But it was the Czech-born Kron who was able to provide context to Aho's performances.

"We really had a good feel for him as a player," MacDonald said. "Robert has a better feel for the European players in the sense that he understands the culture and background that they come from, the way they approach the game, think the game and play the game."

What they saw was a skilled forward playing beyond his age. A 17-year-old amongst men, Aho logged 27 games and 11 points (4g, 7a) with Karpat in Liiga in 2014-15.

Consider this, from a November 2015 scouting report filed by a Canes scout:

What Aho lacked in size, he more than made up for in on-ice smarts, resolve and raw competitiveness.

"You noticed the hockey sense right away," said Darren Yorke, who is now the Canes' manager of scouting. "It's a 160-pound kid being able to handle that pace, speed and strength."

"We saw that his size was not a problem to him. He didn't think it was a problem, and he didn't play like it was a problem," MacDonald said. "He was not a real heavy guy, but he played way above his weight. We knew there was a lot of grit and determination there, as well as the skill and smarts and hockey sense. Some of that comes from being a guy who can't overwhelm physically or play that power game, so you have to be a little bit smarter and figure out ways to attack that are more conducive to your skill set. He certainly figured that out very, very quickly."

Video: Draft Lookback: Sebastian Aho Highlights

World Junior Championship, Jan. 2015

Born in July of 1997, Aho was, by a good eight months, the youngest player on Team Finland's World Junior team in 2015. Though the Finns fell in quarterfinal action after winning just a game in the preliminary round and Aho was held off the scoresheet, the tournament marked a turning point in his season.

"Most of those kids are 20 years old, but you put him on the power play or in a center position and he just keeps on creating plays," Yorke said. "As a 17-year-old playing in that tournament, if you're able to create plays and show off the hockey sense, it's something that is very special."

"At the World Juniors, he really got our attention," MacDonald said. "That's when it really hit home that, ok, this guy is something."

Liiga Playoffs and U-18 World Championship, April 2015

Aho skated in 10 Finnish Elite League playoff games, perhaps none bigger than Game 7 of the championship series. In overtime, Aho broke in alone and scored on a backhander to deliver Karpat back-to-back championships.

"[Playoffs] takes another whole step in the game; it's faster and stronger, and that's when you really saw the competitive nature in his game," Yorke said.

After Aho was the Game 7 hero on April 25, 2015, he flew to Switzerland to join Team Finland in the gold medal game of the U-18 World Championship - and then he helped set up his team's opening goal.

"Most kids are a little tired, but this kid jumps on a plane and does everything he can to help his team win," Yorke said.

NHL Combine and Draft Meetings, June 2016

As the 13th ranked European skater by NHL Central Scouting, Aho attended in the 2015 NHL Combine in Buffalo, NY. In addition to observing him in a myriad of fitness tests, Kron and the Canes met with Aho.

"He was a quiet kid but very smart and very confident. Quietly confident," Kron said. "He wasn't a big kid. But he had that look in his eye that he knows he's a good player, in a good way, not in a cocky way."

Following the week in Buffalo, the Canes' amateur scouting staff gathered in Raleigh for their annual pre-draft meetings, in which draft-eligible players are analyzed, strategies are discussed and a master list is assembled.

With the fifth overall pick in the draft, the Canes were primed to land an impact player. When talk progressed to the second round, Aho's name surfaced.

"We had lots of exposure to him," MacDonald said. "We talked about him as a good player, a skilled player, a smart player."

Video: Draft Lookback: Tony MacDonald talks Aho

NHL Draft, June 26-27, 2015

With the fifth overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, the Hurricanes selected Noah Hanifin, the first defenseman off the board that night.

As they do each year, the Hurricanes scouting staff then reconvened to analyze and tweak their list heading into the second day of the draft, a day in which the team initially held nine additional picks.

"We were looking more for a forward in the second pick as we headed into Saturday," Executive Vice President and General Manager Ron Francis said. "Reassessing the list and what we wanted to do, we had him real high on the list as we got into the second round."

"When the first round is over on Friday, it gives a whole new perspective to the draft in terms of what's left," MacDonald said. "When we re-did our list on Friday night, we had two or three players at the top of the list, and he was one of those players."

In the midst of draft discussion, trade talk was also swirling.

Back at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, on Saturday morning, a trade was announced as the second round commenced: the Hurricanes had acquired goaltender Eddie Lack from Vancouver for a pair of draft picks, including a third-round selection that day.

Meanwhile, the scouting staff remained focus. Pick No. 35 in the draft was rapidly approaching.

"That's part of all the homework you do. You prep, you go through your meetings, you have your list," Francis said. "At the end of the day, when you get to the draft floor, that's pretty much locked down."

"The draft is a stressful time. There's a lot going on," Yorke said. "It's essential to have that draft list in working order. It's a long process to get it right. You have multiple meetings and try to ask different questions to ensure you have players in the correct spots."

As is customary, many of the Canes' scouts were stationed at the team's table on the draft floor at BB&T Center, but the team also had personnel holed up in a "war room" about 20 miles east in Fort Lauderdale. As picks began coming off the board, the Canes made a call to finalize their pick. Kron lobbied for Aho. The war room had no qualms.

"They were in agreement," MacDonald said. "It was a matter of if he was going to be there or not."

31, 32, 33, 34. Defenseman, forward, forward, defenseman.

"The 34th pick goes off the board, and the next thing you know, you see we have Sebastian Aho," Yoke said. "We're excited. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that if he was there, he was going to be the guy."

Video: Draft Lookback: Sebastian Aho is drafted by Carolina

Two years removed from that moment, Aho's list of accomplishments has continued to blossom. With 14 points (5g, 9a) in seven games, he played an integral part in Team Finland's gold medal in the 2016 World Junior Championship. At just 19 years of age, he competed in the World Cup of Hockey with a collection of the world's most elite group of hockey players. And, he had a breakout NHL rookie season in 2016-17, ranking second on the team in both goals (24) and points (49).

"Being a smaller player, there's always some doubt in peoples' minds, and that's how he slides to the second round," Yorke said. "At the end of the day, the hockey sense and competitiveness combined with his speed allowed him to have a successful season and basically prove that he should have been drafted higher."

"These guys just come at you. I don't know how to describe it," Kron said. "He's got something that is difficult to describe in words."

"It looks like we may have a special player on our hands," MacDonald said. "He's that good a player."

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