Six months ago, Sebastian Aho was at home in Sweden watching a movie instead of watching the NHL Draft.
The defenseman been passed over before and at 21 years old was a bit surprised to get a call from the New York Islanders, even after a career year in the Swedish Hockey League. It may have taken a while for Aho to break into an NHL organization, but since then things have taken off for the young, puck-moving Swede.
He reported to Islanders Mini Camp a few days after being drafted and signed his entry-level deal less than a week after camp ended. After becoming one of the American Hockey League's top offensive defensemen in his rookie season, he was called up to the Islanders on Thursday as reinforcements after Johnny Boychuk was placed on IR. He's making his NHL debut on Sunday night vs the Colorado Avalanche.
"It's always been a dream to play in the NHL, so it's going to be special," Aho said at Pepsi Center on Sunday. "I always wanted to be the best I can be and the NHL is the best league. You always try to get there."
"He's earned his opportunity to come up," head coach Doug Weight said on Friday. "He's not the biggest guy, but moves the puck really well. Skates well and creates a lot. A real creative kid and he battles. He's defended really well in those areas, which for a young D on the smaller side, you have to be aware of. He's played really well."
Aho had 20 points (9G, 11A) in 29 games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, his first season in North America. He leads Sound Tigers defensemen and is second in the AHL in goals, including a hat trick against Providence on Nov. 5. Only Devon Toews, who is currently week-to-week with an upper-body injury has more points among Bridgeport defensemen.
Aho's career-high in Sweden was 30 points (10G, 20A) in 50 games with Skellefta last season and even he's a little surprised at how well his game has transitioned.
"Maybe with the scoring. I've never been the guy who's scored the most goals, but they've been falling in," Aho said. "It's been a fun season. It's been a bit of a change with the small rink and everything, but I think I've adapted pretty quick and it's been a fun season so far."
Aho scrambled down to Long Island just in time to join the Islanders on their two-game trip to Winnipeg and Colorado. Weight wanted him to get acclimated with the team before making his NHL debut, so he sat out the Islanders 4-2 loss in Winnipeg.
"I got a couple practices in and got to know the guys and everything, so that was good," Aho said.
The 21-year-old said the off-ice transition coming stateside has also been easier than anticipated. His girlfriend moved with him to Connecticut, so he has someone to speak Swedish with, which he says helps. Aho said his Sound Tigers teammates have helped him adjust, citing Kane Lafranchise, Ben Holmstrom, Mitchell Vande Sompel and Parker Wotherspoon.
His age may help the transition. Weight called Aho a late bloomer and Head Amateur Scout Vellu Kautonen said the Islanders had been following him over the past few years prior to drafting the young puck mover.
"He's very skilled with the puck, very mobile," Kautonen said at the draft. "To me, he's a modern-style NHL defenseman. Smaller guy, but because of his skating and ability, he can play."
Video: Sebastian Aho Highlights
Aho said one of his best abilities is getting his wrist shot through to the net, which he's been able to do in Bridgeport.
"It's been one of the things I've been working on for years," Aho said. "I'm just going to have to keep working on it as I get closer and closer to playing up here."
Aho's career progression has sped up since being drafted in June and he doesn't plan on changing too much of what's made him successful over the past year and a half. The plan is to just keep working hard and enjoy this taste of the NHL with the Islanders.
"Just keep playing like I've played all year. It's what's gotten me up here," Aho said. "I'm going to keep playing like I've been doing, keep it simple and enjoy the moment."