STOCKHOLM — Sebastian Aho has not endured the same kind of stress as most of the NHL’s other top restricted free agents this summer, but he sure experienced his fair share during the first few days of July.
He says he never had a clue an offer sheet was coming his way. Aho didn’t even speak directly with Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin or have long to weigh the pros and cons before signing a heavily front-loaded $42.27-million, five-year deal with the Habs on July 1.
“There was not a lot of time to think about it,” said Aho. “A day. A day. It happened really fast. It was really important to start the season on time, to me. That helped to get there.
“It felt like the right thing to do at the moment.”
Aho was forced to wait another 24 hours or so before receiving a text from a Carolina Hurricanes staff member telling him that they were matching the offer sheet. It was followed by a phone conversation with Carolina owner Tom Dundon and the 22-year-old acknowledges now that the entire experience was a bit uncomfortable.
“It wasn’t easy, for sure,” he said during the recent NHL European player media tour.
For Aho, the offer sheet represented a chance to get his next contract taken care of long before training camp. The deal came with an immediate $11.3-million signing-bonus payment and calls for more than $21 million to be sent his way inside 365 days — a structure the Canadiens believed might give Dundon pause and allow them to snag the player.
It was all perfectly allowable under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement, but it’s not a commonly used mechanism. There have only been nine offer sheets signed during the NHL’s salary cap era and Aho’s was the first since the Calgary Flames gave one to Ryan O’Reilly in February 2013.
That’s partly why Aho was caught so off-guard by the Canadiens’ interest. His contract talks were moving slowly with Carolina, but he didn’t expect to receive an offer from another club. The only team willing to extend him one was Montreal, according to Aho.
“That’s the thing: It’s not up to you if somebody wants to offer sheet,” he said. “I had no idea. Obviously, I’m thankful for Montreal to offer me this contract — they showed me they wanted me — but at the same time I’m really psyched to play in Carolina.
Aho’s been a member of the Hurricanes since getting selected 35th overall in 2015. He is coming off his finest NHL season — where he not only compiled a career-best 30 goals and 83 points, but also played centre for the entire year and thrived.
And he was a big reason why Carolina unexpectedly reached the Eastern Conference Final before getting swept by Boston.
So you can imagine the mixed feelings running through his mind while he stood in his father Harri’s office half a world away in Oulu, Finland, and signed a binding contract with Montreal. Even though it called for a life-changing amount of money, there wasn’t any celebrating until after Aho learned what Carolina would do.
“When they told me that they were going to match it was an awesome feeling,” he said. “Even though I’d signed the contract, that was the moment it was deal done in my mind. Close it. The next five years, I don’t have to worry about it. I can focus on playing hockey which is the most important, and obviously in Carolina where we had a good year last year and great teammates, a great coach.”
Aho doesn’t think there will be any hard feelings to smooth out with his teammates once he returns to Raleigh. Teuvo Teravainen — his linemate, countryman and good friend — says he never doubted the Hurricanes would match because Aho is such an important player to the organization.
Still, had he not gone the offer-sheet route, he’d be getting mentioned alongside Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Brock Boeser, Matthew Tkachuk, Zach Werenski and others as players still without a new deal.
“He would be probably the same thing right now,” said Teravainen. “Now he doesn’t have to stress about the deal any more. … Who knows? Some people might be like [William] Nylander last year [and miss a lot of games]. It’s tough for the player.”
Aho got his difficult period out of the way early. The Hurricanes’ long playoff run and the contract situation kept him from taking any real vacation until last week, when he visited Sweden and Austria to satisfy some sponsorship obligations but also to relax.
Unlike many of his peers, he already knows where he’ll be on the first day of training camp next month. There’s peace of mind in that.
“It’s obviously a relief because it’s done,” said Aho. “It’s a good feeling, really. I think both [sides] were happy to get it done. [General manager Don] Waddell said his summer got better because he didn’t have to worry about it anymore, too, so I think it worked both ways.”