Defenseman Sebastian Aho didn't start the season as the sixth defenseman on the New York Islanders, but he didn't relinquish that spot once he got the opportunity. Back in October, when the season started, Robin Salo was poised to take the next step in his progression and become a regular on the blueline, but it didn't work out that way.
Aho somewhat surprisingly signed a two-year contract extension with the Islanders last summer after an underwhelming 2021-22 season where he scored two goals and 12 assists in a career-high 36 games while playing 16:27 TOI. It was expected that Aho would play a similar role this season as the team's seventh defenseman, able to step in due to injury or when poor play justified a change.
An opportunity for a larger role presented itself early. By the season's fifth game, Aho was inserted into the lineup for Salo and never left, playing in a career-high 71 games, tallying five goals and 18 assists. He played consistently enough to where the occasional poor play or bad penalty didn't jeopardize his spot in the lineup as he gained Lane Lambert's trust as a reliable option.
“I just think that he understands that he has to just keep it simple, and you know, less is more,” Lambert said back in November in NYI Hockey Now. You don’t have to do too much. He’s very, very effective, [by] just keeping the play simple.
The more he was in the lineup, the more the game slowed down for Aho, and the mistakes that plagued his earlier NHL stints throughout his career became less frequent.
"I played more games and was a lot more consistent than I've been in the years prior to this," said Aho when meeting with the media on Monday. "I've always had good games every year but have also had a lot of worse games, but I feel this year I stayed at a better level throughout everything, and I'm happy about that."
Aho also contributed to the team's power play as Lambert desperately tried to find a combination that would turn the special teams unit around. Noah Dobson had been entrusted as the quarterback on the power play for the majority of the season, but Aho took on a more prominent role in that spot in the series against Carolina, and while the end results were the same, the unit looked better with Aho running things.
"I feel confident, said Aho of being on the power play. "It's something I've done on most of the teams I've played on. I feel comfortable back there." It was Aho's shot late in the third period of Game 3 that was deflected by Kyle Palmieri for the team's only power-play goal of the series in the team's 5-1 win where they scored four goals in two minutes and 18 seconds.
Aho now goes into the summer, knowing he has another year left on his contract and likely a role to play on the team next season. It's expected the Islanders will aim to upgrade the blue line, but with Scott Mayfield, Aho's defensive partner for most of the season, an unrestricted free agent, there's a chance that Aho could remain part of the third pairing even if the team brings in a new defenseman via free agency or trade.
2022-23 was a productive year for the 27-year-old, one where he showed that he could play consistent hockey at the NHL level and first earn and then keep regular ice-time as a result.