In the past few seasons, thinking in hockey has changed. Instead of balancing your offensive talent on different lines, teams are now eager to load up their scoring talent on one line. They are looking for three legitimate scoring threats to play together. As this strategy evolved, there was a strong consensus the Boston Bruins had the top line in the NHL, with Patrice Bergeron between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. All three of these players seem better than ever. However, their position at the top of the NHL totem pole is in jeopardy. The Colorado Avalanche have put together a line of Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen flanking Nathan MacKinnon that has been terrorizing the league for the past year and challenging the Boston line as the best in hockey. Each line is centered by a dominant player, two-way veteran Bergeron and turbocharged MacKinnon. Each line has a left winger with a physical and agitating presence: Marchand and Landeskog. And on each line, the right winger is the least experienced member. Pastrnak, 22, was leading the league in goals through late November. Rantanen, also 22, led NHLers in assists and points. Obviously, these are two of the top young players in hockey. How do they compare?
Veteran NHL coach Jacques Lemaire had an interesting way of analyzing the value of a good offensive player. If he was matched with other good offensive players, did he make them better? If he did not have offensive players as gifted as he was, could he “stand alone” and be productive? With his dynamic skating and stickhandling, Pastrnak can certainly stand alone and produce goals if necessary. He can fit in on a good line and make enough good plays to make Bergeron and Marchand better. Pastrnak passes Lemaire’s test. However, Rantanen excels in the test. He is the perfect complement for MacKinnon. Rantanen’s playmaking skills are as good as any winger’s in hockey. He is not looking to stand alone, but some of his goals at key points this year have been outstanding. His stand-alone ability at this time may not be quite at Pastrnak’s level, but Rantanen’s ability to maximize his linemates’ talents is so good that it tilts the balance in his favor.
Pastrnak came to North America immediately after being drafted in the first round in 2014. After 25 games in the AHL, he was ready for the NHL. He is now in his fourth full season with the Bruins, averaging almost 0.85 points per game over his career. Rantanen also came to North America right away after being drafted in the first round in 2015. He required a full season in the AHL and is now in his third full NHL season. Since the start of 2017-18, his numbers have been better than those of Pastrnak. At this point, Pastrnak has better career totals, including an impressive Stanley Cup playoffs last spring.
This comparison is not close. Pastrnak was a dynamic skater in his draft year, and he is clearly an above-average skater at the NHL level. He has speed and quickness, balance and agility. Rantanen’s skating was in the “iffy” category in his draft year. He lacked speed and acceleration, and he looked a bit like Bambi on some of his turns. By last season, his skating had improved enough that he could perform well on a line with skaters like Landeskog and MacKinnon. Rantanen is much stronger on his skates, and his balance and turns are good. His speed and acceleration, however, are not close to Pastrnak’s.
This comparison is also not close. Pastrnak has above-average hockey sense, particularly in offensive situations. He still at times tries to stickhandle and beat people 1-on-1, but I attribute those situations to immaturity. He makes good plays on a consistent basis and is even being used on the point on the power play. Defensively, he is sometimes confused on who the dangerous opponent may be in defensive zone coverage and can lose his man when backchecking. A close look at Rantanen shows me a player whose hockey sense is at the top of the charts. I am on record in THN as rating the top three NHLers as Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Auston Matthews. Rantanen has hockey sense as good as any of them. The only difference between him and these generational talents is he cannot come close to matching them in skating. You can watch Rantanen play an entire game and not find fault with his decisions. His puck management is as good as anyone’s, and his plays are smart and often innovative. What I did not see until putting him “under the microscope” in recent games is that his defensive positioning is flawless. Rantanen is as smart a player as you can find.
Pastrnak can really dangle with the puck. He can beat players 1-on-1, he can make plays, and he has a quick, powerful shot that is accurate. He can also be sloppy, as evidenced by his 76 giveaways last season. Rantanen manages the puck as well as anybody, controlling it for good parts of every shift, and he made some incredible passes while I was scouting him. They ranged from saucer passes to MacKinnon in full flight to a no-look backhand pass to Landeskog in perfect scoring position. A significant statistic to me is that last season he had only 30 giveaways while controlling the puck so much.
Before closely observing games, I would have given Pastrnak the edge in large part because he was leading the NHL in goals and Rantanen was recording three assists for every goal scored. Now my opinion is different. Pastrnak has a very good release and a quick, powerful shot. Rantanen is looking pass first. However, when the game is on the line, his shooting is lethal. His quick pivot and bullet wrist shot against Boston Nov. 15 was something very few players could have accomplished. Then there’s his winner against Anaheim Nov. 18 with 1.3 seconds remaining in overtime. It brought me out of my chair. When he one-timed the slapshot from the high slot, his body was directed to the goalie’s left. However, his stick was open and he slapped the puck to the goalie’s right and beat him cleanly. It was the same type of shot Wayne Gretzky perfected. Rantanen can shoot at the same level as Pastrnak. Rantanen just does not do it as often.
These two players are two of the hottest commodities in the NHL at this time. Pastrnak can bring a jolt of speed and scoring to any team that needs it, and he plays with passion. Rantanen has improved his skating dramatically, but the tempo of his game is not close to that of Pastrnak. Scoring is secondary to Rantanen at this time but, when required, he can produce. His offensive sense and his defensive awareness are both at the top of the chart. Pastrnak can be one of the best scorers in the NHL for a number of years. Rantanen can be something special. This guy could be at the top of the charts in every category except skating. I would hate to pass on Pastrnak, but I would do so to get Rantanen. Mikko Rantanen is that good. And the scary part is, he is getting better.
This story appears in the January 28, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.