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Aho focused on Hurricanes, not worried about playing Canadiens

Carolina opens season against Montreal, which signed forward to offer sheet

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Sebastian Aho never had time to consider the alternate universe where he wasn't playing for the Carolina Hurricanes in their season opener against the Montreal Canadiens at PNC Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; FS-CR, TSN2, RDS, NHL.TV).

In that world, the Hurricanes wouldn't have matched the five-year, $42.27 million restricted free agent offer sheet Aho signed with Montreal on July 1, and the 22-year-old forward would be making his Canadiens debut Thursday against his former team.

But the Hurricanes announced they would match less than 24 hours after receiving the offer sheet and, from that moment, Aho knew he'd still be playing for Carolina.

"At that point, it's not up to you what's going to happen, but I didn't think that way," Aho said. "The good thing is it went so fast."

If you think the game Thursday will provide Aho an opportunity for closure, he insists otherwise.

"I moved on like months ago," he said.

Video: Sebastian Aho checks in at No. 14 on the list

But Aho will have to answer questions about the Canadiens and the offer sheet again before being be able to look ahead to a season when he and the Hurricanes have high expectations. After qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoff last season for the first time since 2009, Carolina reached the Eastern Conference Final before losing to the Boston Bruins in four games.

That taste of success has the Hurricanes eager to back it up by qualifying for the playoffs again and taking another step in the postseason.

"In the locker room, we had a lot of expectations last year too," Aho said. "That was probably more us setting the bar higher. It's really good that we're not trying to be the last team to make the playoffs now. We're trying to be one of those teams that can be there and clinch early."

Aho also wants to reach another level in his play individually after leading the Hurricanes with an NHL career high 83 points (30 goals, 53 assists) last season and 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in 15 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

"I know there's other small details of my game, first of all, face-offs, and there's a few other things I know I can be better at," he said. "I don't have goals [for] how many points I want to score, but I want to be an overall better hockey player and help the team that way."

Video: What do the Hurricanes have in store for an encore?

In that way, signing the offer sheet worked out the way Aho hoped. He maintains he signed it to guarantee he'd be under contract for the start of training camp and be able to concentrate on the season without distractions.

The lengthy list of big-name restricted free agents who missed time in camp before signing, which included Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitchell Marner, Colorado Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen, Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy and Winnipeg Jets forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, seemed to justify Aho's concern. What Aho didn't seem to expect was the reaction to him becoming the first restricted free agent to sign an offer sheet since Ryan O'Reilly, then of the Avalanche, accepted one from the Calgary Flames in Feb. 2013 that Colorado subsequently matched.

While some in in the media speculated about what Aho signing the offer sheet said about his desire to play for the Hurricanes, he was soundly asleep at home in his native Finland.

"There's a time difference, so I went to bed and I heard the media here went crazy," Aho said. "The next day, I woke up and Carolina matched, so it was kind of a good setup for me."

Having been in on the discussions with Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon, general manager Don Waddell and Aho, coach Rod Brind'Amour said he never worried that Aho wanted to leave or he wouldn't be back this season.

"In the conversations we had all the way up and even after he signed, it was like, 'I'm not going anywhere,'" Brind'Amour said. "We knew he was going to be here."

 

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Aho's teammates said they were a little surprised when he signed the offer sheet, but relieved when the Hurricanes matched.

"It was definitely a little different seeing that whole offer sheet thing. I've never seen it before since I've been in the League," defenseman Brett Pesce said. "That was different, but it's a business at the end of the day. You want to get your money and I'm just glad he's here."

Aho said the offer sheet has not been an issue since he returned to Carolina for training camp. In fact, none of his teammates has mentioned it.

Pesce hinted that Aho might have to deal with some playful ribbing leading up to the game Thursday, but otherwise it's been forgotten.

"I feel like guys understood," Aho said. "To me, the media have been asking if it's going to be a special game for me. It's special because it's the home opener and the season opener, but other than that, it's just the opener."

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