A home-cooked dinner of salmon and vegetables prepared by his mother would have made it an excellent 26th birthday for Sebastian Aho, no matter what.
Even better for Aho: It came with a lucrative contract extension.
The Carolina Hurricanes signed Aho to an eight-year deal worth $78 million on Wednesday, the richest contract handed out in the history of the franchise that used to be the Hartford Whalers. Aho is now under contract through 2032 at an annual salary cap hit of $9.75 million, once the deal kicks in for the 2024-25 NHL season.
“Birthday and an extension — it could be a lot worse,” Aho said on a video call with reporters from his native Finland. “This is the place I want to play. Obviously, starting from the front office, the organization has taken huge steps over the course of the last five years and, obviously, we feel like we’re building every year.”
The Hurricanes are building around Aho, their top center who's in his prime and one of the reasons they've made the playoffs each of the past five seasons. He has 468 points in 520 career regular-season games, all with Carolina, and is also nearly a point-a-game player in the playoffs with 58 in 63.
“Five years ago we were just starting to build, and if you look at the pieces we put in place Sebastian is absolutely the No. 1 piece,” general manager Don Waddell said. “We’ve got some great players, but Sebastian has been there each and every night in the regular season and the playoffs.”
Aho cited Rod Brind'Amour as the coach he wants to play for. Brind'Amour just signed an extension of his own two years ago.
Carolina's core also remains intact. Captain Jordan Staal, winger Jesper Fast and goaltenders Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta re-signed, Teuvo Teravainen remains under contract and fellow Finn Jesperi Kotkaniemi is locked up through 2029.
Getting a deal done for Aho is a key step in Carolina's chase to win its second Stanley Cup championship.
“You can work around the edges to fill out the holes you need, but you know you got your key pieces in place,” Waddell said. "You’ve got to put yourself in position to compete for the Cup every year, and we think we can do that for numerous years coming up.”
Part of what made it such an easy decision for Aho is his belief that a championship could come sooner than later.
“This is the best team on paper that we ever had,” he said. “As a player, all you can ask, really, from the team (is) you have a chance to win, and we definitely have a chance to be the best team in the league.”
Beyond retaining crucial veteran players, the Hurricanes made a splash in free agency with a two-year deal for defenseman Dmitry Orlov and a three-year deal for forward Michael Bunting. Earlier this week, they brought back defenseman Tony DeAngelo after trading him to Philadelphia at the 2022 draft.
Waddell called it a very good offseason, and he may not be done. The team has been linked to free agent scoring winger Vladimir Tarasenko, discussed trading for Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson and could deal from an already deep blue line.
“My job as the general manager is just to stay on the phone every day and continue to look to see if we can make our team better. Hard to do right now,” Waddell said. "I can’t say anything’s going to happen between now and the start of the season, but certainly we’ll continue to talk to different teams and free agents and see what shakes out here over the next six weeks or so.”
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard contributed.