Mikko Rantanen: Avalanche’s Rising Star?

The Colorado Avalanche enter the new season hoping Mikko Rantanen can build on his sophomore success. In one of the more impressive –and under-reported – second-year performances in the NHL, Rantanen could be the team’s secret weapon. While the slow summer months lead to discussions about which stars will rise and fall and argue over the value of draft picks and upcoming rookies, many seem to have forgotten about Rantanen’s rise to powerhouse forward last year.

Getting to Know the Finn

Rantanen hails from Nousiainen, Finland (don’t ask me to pronounce it) and enters the upcoming season in the final year of his entry-level contract. At 21 years old, the giant of a right-wing stands at 6-foot-4 and weighs 211 pounds. While his stature could be considered intimidating, his goofy grin and quirky sense of humor have endeared him to the Avalanche fanbase.

Mikko Rantanen entered the 2015 draft as the highest-rated European skater. The Avalanche chose him with the 10th overall selection that year, and Rantanen was the first European selection of the draft. While he made the opening night roster for the 2015-16 season, he only played a handful of games before going to the Avalanche’s AHL club, the San Antonio Rampage.

Mikko Rantanen earning his way to AHL All Star
Rantanen playing his way to AHL All-Star (Christine Shapiro/Texas Stars Hockey)

While with the Rampage, Rantanen’s scoring prowess earned him a spot in the AHL All-Star Game. He was the second-youngest player named to the AHL All-Star team in 80 years. Rantanen went on to finish sixth in overall scoring for the AHL season and became only the seventh teenager to pass the 60-point threshold at the AHL level. He finished the season sharing rookie of the year honors with Frank Vatrano. And, he accomplished all this while missing nearly a month of AHL time when he served as Finland’s captain at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship. Finland ended up winning the gold medal.

Rookie Year a Tough Slog

Rantanen played his first full year with the Avalanche during their dismal, challenge riddled, historically bad 48-point 2016-17 campaign. Despite the disappointing year, he managed to finish the season as the team’s leading goal scorer and tied for third in total points. He managed to place 10th in total rookie scoring and sixth in rookie goals.

Mikko Rantanen fighting through a tough year
Rantanen scoring in a tough year (Photo: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

And, this can’t be stressed strongly enough, he did this on a team that only scored 166 goals all season and finished so far out of last place they needed a ladder to see the next worst team. There were times he seemed the lone bright spot on a struggling team. Some years are just ugly. And ugly years can leave scars. So the key question became, how would the tough year impact Rantanen’s progress?

Mikko Rantanen Rebounds With a Vengeance

It didn’t take Rantanen long to put any lingering doubts to rest. He entered his sophomore year discovering chemistry playing alongside the Avalanche’s up-and-coming Hart trophy candidate – Nathan MacKinnon. Eventually, Gabriel Landeskog joined the trio on left wing and the scoring erupted.

Rantanen racked up 84 points in his second full NHL season, netting 29 goals and 55 assists on Colorado’s top line. He finished second in total points for the Avalanche and led the team in power play points. He earned more recognition than he actually received, partly because he was overshadowed by his linemate, Nathan MacKinnon.

Mikko Rantanen
Rantanen races to score against top lines (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

But Rantanen’s stellar performance not only placed him near the Avalanche’s top performers, his numbers put him among the lofty heights of the NHL elite. Many missed the fact his points total placed him 17th in the NHL for the season, tied with the more famous John Tavares and Johnny Gaudreau. His 55 assists placed him 18th among all NHLers, tied with Artemi Panarin. Both Rantanen and Panarin earned one more point than Hart winner Taylor Hall and found themselves just two points shy of Evgeny Kuznetsov and Evgeni Malkin. Pretty heady stuff for only his second year.

Rantanen Has Room to Grow

Coach Jared Bednar started last season juggling line combinations to find which players worked well together. It took a while for the Rantanen-MacKinnon-Landeskog line to find each other and develop the kind of chemistry that saw them climb to compete with the top lines in the playoffs. The line combo didn’t really find their stride until after the Matt Duchene trade in the middle of November. They evolved to become a premier scoring line, in only Rantanen’s second full NHL season.

MacKinnon Rantanen Landeskog Avalanche
Rantanen, MacKinnon and Landeskog celebrate another goal. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

Now that Rantanen has established himself as leading player and the coach has a better handle on the team talent, this year should provide a much smoother start out of the gate. Rantanen enters his third NHL season showing a steady evolution in his game, growing and improving. He uses his size to handle the physical aspects of play yet manages to work his slick sniper magic to both feed his linemates as well as score himself. If last year was his sophomore slump, one can only imagine what wonderful surprises the upcoming season holds.

The real question becomes – how high is Rantanen’s ceiling? Is he anywhere near his limit? Only time will tell. But last year should have built a ton of confidence. Not only did he help feed Nathan MacKinnon to the top of the NHL. Rantanen laid the foundation to be there himself.

The Avalanche may want to consider extending Rantanen’s contract before the season starts. If he continues to develop at this pace, his next contract could be pricey. In the meantime, Rantanen could very well prove to be the team’s secret weapon. Maybe it’s best for the Avalanche his performance has been overlooked. Some secrets are worth keeping, at least for a little longer.