New York Islanders defenseman Sebastian Aho arguably played his best game at the NHL level in Saturday night's 4-3 OT win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at UBS Arena. It was simply a game that the Islanders do not win without the 26-year-old, who has started to assert himself as a reliable third-pair defenseman playing alongside the steady presence of Scott Mayfield.
Before the start of the off-season, it wasn't a sure thing that the Islanders would bring back Aho after a mostly underwhelming season in 2021-22. Logging a career-high 16:27 TOI a game, Aho scored two goals and 12 assists in career-high 36 games. Not only did GM Lou Lamoriello bring him back, but he was signed to a two-year extension at $825K AAV.
During the training camp, it wasn't expected that Aho would emerge as the Islanders' sixth defenseman, not with Robin Salo, a former second-round pick, poised to take a step towards being an NHL regular. The season started that way, with Salo as the sixth defenseman and Aho as a healthy scratch. But Salo's growth was stunted, and Aho was given an opportunity and hasn't relinquished it.
"You’ve got an easy play up the wall, but you’re trying to pass for a breakaway, the other team gets it, they go the other way, and we end up in the D-zone. I think, especially at the start of last year, I kind of had a bad habit of trying to do that. I’ve gotten better at that, of just making the right play...You’ve just got to read the game sometimes when it’s not the right moment.”"- Sebastian Aho
On Oct. 22nd, Aho replaced Salo in the lineup and has started every game since. Last night, Aho assisted on Brock Nelson's first two goals and made a key play on the game-tying goal in the third. On the MSG Networks post-game, Thomas Hickey went out of the way to explain how it was the type of play that endears a player to his teammates. Aho kept the puck in the zone with his right skate and absorbed a hit to do so. From there, Mathew Barzal was able to possess the puck, leading to Mayfield's backhander to tie the game.
Aho hasn't done enough, long enough to say that his spot is firmly secure, but it feels that it'll take more than a bad play or a bad game to take him out of the lineup, he's done that much. And with Mayfield entering the final year of his team-friendly deal, Aho being able to log 13-15 minutes a night offers good depth at a cheap AAV for next season. If he starts making plays like he did on Saturday, it'll be worth a lot more than that.