Even with the NHL playoffs in full swing, the free agent market has been alive and well. Montreal has already dipped into the KHL, by signing the Czech defender Jakub Jerabek Teams like the Maple Leafs have been extremely busy snagging up players from Sweden and Finland as well, bolstering their depth at both the NHL and AHL levels.
The biggest problem facing Montreal right now is that their current prospect pool is rather shallow. There are bright spots like Mikhail Sergachev, and Noah Juulsen, but as of right now the Canadiens lack puck-moving defencemen.
Enter Sebastian Aho.
No, not the Finnish Aho that is currently playing in Carolina.
This Aho is a mobile defender who is making a major impact in the Swedish Hockey League. Despite being undrafted, and in his own words “not contacted by any teams about a contract or even a tryout” Aho has made major strides towards being a top defender.
As a 21-year old playing for Skellefteå AIK, he would finish second in the SHL for goals by a defenceman, with ten. That's just one behind former Habs prospect Magnus Nygren. In terms of overall points he finished third in the league, one point behind Nygren and nine behind Frolunda’s Hennrik Tommernes, while playing nearly three fewer minutes per game.
The scouting reports on Aho all paint the same picture, that he’s a dynamic puck mover who sees the game extremely well. However they note that he was likely passed over in large part due to his height. Aho stands at 5'10".
"Aho is an undersized puck-mover that has good instincts with the puck and is good at starting the transition. Starting the transition is probably Aho’s best asset, as he finds options with passing lanes but can also skate the puck out of danger on his own. Aho also is a good defenseman in the offensive zone. He distributes the puck well and can run the PP. " - https://www.hockeyprospect.com Black Book, 2016.
As we’ve seen time and time again, size is not a barrier in the modern NHL, especially when more teams are looking to mobilize their blue line and spark offence. Not only can Aho generate offence, he uses smart positioning and his hockey IQ to read plays and limit zone entries against.
There are some concerns still that his size might cause him to be over matched against the bigger bodies in the NHL, but the positives he brings likely far outweigh the potential negatives. We’ve seen it in the Habs own prospect Victor Mete this past season in the OHL, a smart hockey player finds a way to overcome their physical limitations.
The trend in the NHL is to have players who can move the puck and drive play from their own zone, something Aho does very well.
Under Claude Julien there’s a chance he could grow into a Torey Krug type player, and flourish in the NHL. That’s not to say he’ll hit those same numbers, but watching players like Krug or Ryan Ellis is a great reminder of what undersized players can do in the NHL, even as defencemen.
Right now the Habs pipeline on defensive prospects is Sergachev, Mete, Noah Juulsen and Simon Bourque. Out of those four Mete and Sergachev are known as offensive forces, while Juulsen is known as a steady defensive player, and Bourque as a solid all around player. Unfortunately for Montreal, both Sergachev and Mete still have some seasoning left to do in the OHL, while Juulsen and Bourque have handful of AHL games between them for experience, but are still well away from being NHL ready.
Aho has nearly three and a half years of professional experience playing in the Swedish league, and a championship pedigree coming from one of the best teams in Europe.
With the expansion draft looming and Marc Bergevin likely to make off season adjustments, the Canadiens could be without someone like Nathan Beaulieu by the time next season rolls around. Unless Sergachev takes a gigantic step forward this summer, the Canadiens would do well to have another puck mover to fill the void while the rookie learns at the pro level. Even with Beaulieu in the lineup, the Habs need to add more momentum to their attack, and that starts in their own zone.
There's no guarantee that Aho would be a game changer in Montreal, or even Laval for that matter. But performing due diligence and giving one of the top defenders from a top European league a chance could become a major boon. Teams like Toronto and Chicago have raided the Euro leagues to varying degrees of success. Just look at Artemi Panarin or Nikita Zaitsev respectively. It can’t hurt to try them out during the preseason, and if Aho accepts an a deal to play in the AHL that’s great, since the Rocket are going to need some more offence on their blueline,
If not, then at least Montreal gave a deserving player a shot. Playing it safe is death in the modern NHL, and not every player coming over from Europe is going to pay off, but seeing as Aho is interested in plying his trade in North America, this seems like a very low risk option that could yield a high reward.