Sebastian Aho had a productive weekend in Ontario, California, helping the Atlantic Division win the AHL's All-Star Classic.
Aho finished the three-on-three tournament with a pair of points (1G, 1A), and took home a trophy, but three is a notable number here. Aho was named to the All-Star Classic for a third-straight season, the first Bridgeport Sound Tiger to hold that distinction.
"I had a lot of fun with this group and it's an honor just to be here," Aho said after Monday's all-star affair. "It's always fun to see some familiar faces and winning the tournament made it extra special. I'll remember this for a long time."
The three-straight all-star nods is especially impressive given that Aho's only played three seasons in the American League. Since stepping into the Sound Tigers' locker room in 2017-18, Aho's been a solid contributor, as he's racked up 97 points (20G, 77A) in 145 games. His 22 points (2G, 20A) are tied for the team lead through 38 games.
While the offense still comes naturally for the Swedish defenseman, the 23-year-old has worked to round out his all-around game, a sign of maturation. He described it as not always looking for the "shinest" play, but being content with getting the puck out of the zone or in deep if the situation calls for it. For an organization that prizes predictability from its players, be it in Bridgeport or on Long Island, that's music to Head Coach Brent Thompson's ears.
"He's always had the skill set, but early he was more of a riverboat gambler, he's now just an offensive defenseman that makes the right play at the right time," Thompson said. "His stick, his defensive awareness is good. There are still times [he makes mistakes], but at the end of the day, he's improved his 200-foot game. I think he defends very well, he thinks the game extremely well and he's not as high risk. That's the biggest thing, eliminating the high risk and giving up odd-man situations."
Aho can see the strides in his defensive game. At 5'11, 177 lbs., he knows he has to rely on positioning and stickwork to defend, outthinking bigger forwards bearing down on him. It's an area he's felt some growth.
"If you look at me just my first year to this year defensively, how I position myself, I'm not the biggest guy, I'm not going to muscle most people off the puck, I'm going to beat them by being smart, being quick and aggressive in my own way," Aho said. "I feel that's a big part of my game that has gotten better and I get a lot of help from the coaches up here and Brent Thompson, Matt Carkner and Eric Boguniecki, they've help me a lot with that."
It shouldn't be much of a surprise that Aho is comfortable against bigger players, as he's had a lot of experience, lacing up for four years in the Swedish Hockey League before moving to North America in 2017. He felt his time in the SHL was a launchpad that set him up for success in the American League.
"I played pro hockey for four years back home and kind of got used to playing against men. Most guys play junior here and then jump straight into pro hockey, I got a little bit of a taste of it by playing pro back home," Aho said.
While the transition from the bigger international ice surfaces hampers some European forwards who are used to time and space, Aho believes it has benefitted him, part of the reason his transition to Bridgeport has been relatively smooth. He's averaged 0.67 points-per-game in three seasons and his 46 points (9G, 37A) last season were tied for seventh among AHL blueliners. His career-high in Sweden was 30 points in 2016-17.
"I guess my game suits the small rink pretty well being a quick on the feet and finding passes," Aho said.
It's the product of hard work, day in and day out in Bridgeport.
"He's a great kid in the locker room, works extremely hard in practice," Thompson said. "He's rewarded because of it. Offensively he's a big piece of our power play, our offense and our whole team."
As someone who made a successful transition over to North America, Aho is keeping a watchful eye on another Swedish prospect in the Isles' system in Simon Holmstrom. Aho is impressed by the Isles' 2019 first-round pick, especially for making the jump at 18, three years younger than when Aho moved from Umea.
"I told him door's always open if he wants help… I try to keep an eye on him, look out for him a bit since he's Swedish and he's 18 years old," Aho said. "I had three years to mature and grow up a little bit more. He's doing a hell of a job. He's only going to get more and more comfortable and take more and more room in the dressing room and on the ice. I look forward to following him and seeing how good he can get."
While he's a three-time all-star at the AHL level, Aho is looking for another chance to play in the NHL. He had 22 games with the Isles back in 2017-18 - recording four points (1G, 3A) - but hasn't played a regular-season game since. That was still an informative stretch for Aho, who has applied the lessons to his game in the interim.
"Just how professional everybody is and how you can't take a day of, or even a shift off," Aho said. "You're out there against the best players in the world and you never relax and always have to fight for your spot."
Aho has been shuttling between Bridgeport and Long Island. He was practicing as the team's seventh defenseman through much of January, with the odd break to get game action with the Sound Tigers, but his services haven't been needed yet. He's hoping to get another chance to make an impression and is staying sharp in case the opportunity presents itself.