When training camp came and went, it was clear that Robin Salo had won the job alongside Scott Mayfield on the New York Islanders’ third defense pairing. He was the only defenseman to get the chance. The seventh defenseman job seemed more up for grabs.
Despite not having a strong training camp, New York Islanders first-year head coach Lane Lambert kept 26-year-old Sebastian Aho on the NHL roster due to his three years of NHL experience.
In his first few games, Robin Salo showed promise early but struggled to play a consistent brand of hockey, leading to Ao getting his first crack of the season in game five, a 5-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning back on Oct. 22.
Since then, Aho has been a mainstay, and in 13 games this season, the Swedish defenseman has a goal and three assists. Providing an offensive game had never been an issue for Aho. It was about his play in the defensive and neutral zones that was a cause for concern.
Aho’s biggest issue throughout his NHL career has been his turnovers, which seemed to prove costly on a nightly basis.
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In 36 games a season ago, Aho averaged .75 turnovers per game in a nightly average of 16:27 minutes. He was struggling to stay on his feet, taking penalties, and when on the ice, the Islanders allowed 292 scoring chances to their 217. For an offensive defenseman, he averaged just 0.94 shots per game.
What’s changed in year four for Aho has been his ability to slow the game down and make the smart play rather than the rushed play.
In 13:22 minutes per game, Aho has turned the puck over just four times, 0.31 times per game. He has yet to take a penalty, drawing three of his own. He’s shooting the puck at a higher rate, with 21 shots in 13 games (1.61 per), and when on the ice, the Islanders have out-chanced their opponents 81-76.
“I just think that he understands that he has to just keep it simple, and you know, less is more,” Lane Lambert said. You don’t have to do too much. He’s very, very effective, [by] just keeping the play simple.”
By playing on a consistent basis, he has been able to not only slow the game down but speed up his thought process.
“He’s just getting an opportunity to play consistently, and I think confidence starts coming with that, and he’s able to settle in and play his game,” New York Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock said. I think he’s been pretty good defensively, pretty reliable back there. And I think when you can do that and break pucks out, it gives you an opportunity to get up and join in the offense.”
“I think that’s just a lot easier when you’re in the lineup consistently. I’ve been there when I first came up, in and out, and it’s a lot tougher to kind of get things going, so I think he’s just getting this opportunity and taking advantage of it.”
NYI Hockey Now caught up with Aho to ask him what he’s worked on the most.
“Probably to be more consistent and not have those nights where you make a couple of big, big mistakes and you’re not feeling it,” Aho said.”That’s probably the biggest change I’ve made.”
One of the other significant reasons that Aho has been able to find success has been the stability of Scott Mayfield as his partner.
As a pair, the two have played 135:52 seconds together (five-on-five), with the Islanders possessing the puck over 53 percent when the two are on the ice. Despite being on the ice for five goals against to the Islanders’ four goals, the two have helped the Islanders outshoot their opponents 70-63 while garnering more of the scoring chances, 67-56.
NYI Hockey Now asked Aho how Mayfield has helped him so far.
“A lot,” Aho said. I mean, he’s played a lot of years. He knows a thing or two, and I just try to listen when he gives some tips or something like that, but I feel like we’re playing good together. We haven’t played a lot before, but we’ve known each other for a lot of years now, so that helps.”
“It’s been good. The communication is really good. We’re making some clean plays exiting the zone, and the offense is coming a little bit more,” Scott Mayfield said. [Aho’s] Such a good skater. The biggest thing is just feeding off each other. I’m physical, hard in front, and then get him the puck, let him kind of move his feet, and make the play.”
Despite playing significantly better in his own zone, he also has established some chemistry with the forwards, most noticeable with Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson.
The latest example was In the New York Islanders 4-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday, Aho notched his first two-point night of the season. n Brock Nelson’s second goal of the game, it was a strong sequence for Aho that started just inside the Blue Jackets blue line after a drop-pass from Nelson.
Brock Nelson X 2️⃣ pic.twitter.com/GwqrJASU55
— Isles on MSGSN (@IslesMSGN) November 13, 2022
“He’s such a great skater. mean, he can get up in the rush, kind of create something from nothing and beat guys just with his skating ability. o that was a good example, going down the wall and just kind of moving around the zone to create some space.”
“I mean, the more you play, the more you kind of pick up on [tendencies],” Aho said. You see it when you watch the games, but it’s easier when you play with someone to pick up their tendencies…who’s gonna kind of take the puck off the wall and look for you and stuff like that.”
For Lane Lambert, seeing Sebastian Aho’s game grow since the first time he saw him play has been gratifying.
“It’s gratifying because he’s put in all that work after not being in the lineup, doing a lot of extra work on off days and things like that,” Lambert said. So I just think that he’s growing. think that he’s keeping the game simple. He’s moving his feet, which he can do very well, and just making a good first pass, and it’s been successful for him.”