Before Mikko Rantanen even got drafted, before he knew which players he would be competing against for a job, he maintained that his goal for 2015-16 was to play in the NHL. And after the powerful right winger was taken 10th overall by the Colorado Avalanche, he did just that – for a handful of games, at least. Rantanen, the brightest prospect in Colorado’s system and Future Watch’s No. 5 prospect overall, made the Avalanche out of camp and played the first six games of the season. The strapping young Finn didn’t register a point and never eclipsed 11 minutes of ice time in any given game, but it’s tough to consider his assignment to the AHL as a disappointment, especially given how Rantanen has performed ever since. “It was an experience for him to dip his toe in the water,” said David Oliver, Colorado’s director of player development. “With ice time comes confidence, and for his development curve we wanted to get him to the AHL to play those big minutes.”
Now, even with that ice time it was no given that Rantanen would get the results and ensuing confidence – Oliver noted that the AHL is a tough league to look good in – but Rantanen has been an offensive monsoon for the San Antonio Rampage. Even though he missed a quarter of the schedule due to injury, the world juniors and NHL duty, the power forward was on pace to break Rampage franchise records for goals, assists and points by a rookie. (The current record holders, Chad Kolarik and Connor Brickley, both played more than 70 games. Rantanen only suited up for 52 and finished with 60 points.)
“There was zero transition time,” Oliver said. “He’s coachable, he plays the right way and with that comes trust. If you can play D-zone in the AHL, you can play it anywhere.” The Avalanche had more than just an inkling Rantanen would be a good one. Back home in Finland, he had played against men as a member of TPS Turku in the Liiga, the nation’s top circuit. Rantanen made his debut as a 16-year-old and last year, spent the entire campaign with the squad, only going back to Turku’s junior team for the playoffs, where he scored 14 points in seven games. “He’s a big, powerful, skilled forward,” Oliver said. “He was playing at a pro level and fitting in as a 17-year-old.” For the 19-year-old, this year has been filled with highs, all of them “sick” in his slang. Playing against top NHL teams such as Anaheim, Los Angeles and Dallas for example. “It was pretty sick playing against those guys,” Rantanen said. “Ryan Getzlaf was there. I like to learn from him.” And living in San Antonio has its benefits as well. The city itself is nice, and the weather is warm. Locals love their teams, and Rantanen goes to NBA Spurs games when he gets the opportunity. “It’s pretty sick,” he said. “They haven’t lost at home all year.” Speaking of home sweet home, Rantanen also put his stamp on Finnish hockey by helping the national team win its second world junior gold in three years. (More literally, the Finns made a postage stamp out of Kasperi Kapanen’s overtime goal celebration.) Though most of the buzz around Finland’s squad centered around super-prospects Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi (both up for the 2016 draft), Rantanen was key in Finland’s semifinal win over archrival Sweden, setting up both goals in a 2-1 squeaker. Sweden’s game plan that night seemed focused on the Laine-Sebastian Aho-Puljujarvi line, almost daring Finland’s older players to beat them. And that’s precisely what Rantanen and Dallas pick Roope Hintz did, much to the delight of the Helsinki faithful in attendance. Being overshadowed by two 17-year-olds couldn’t have been easy, but Rantanen proved his mettle to the Avalanche at the tournament. “There was global attention on that top line,” Oliver said. “But he did what a mature kid does: put his skates on and went to work.” Rantanen said the team celebrated for two nights after the gold-medal victory, before reality came calling and the kids were back with their teams around the hockey world. As for the gold medal itself, it didn’t make the trip back with him to San Antonio. “I’d probably lose it,” Rantanen said, “so I left it with my mother.” As for Laine, the young star trained with Rantanen in the summer, so they’re friends. Rantanen predicted the Tappara left winger will go top-three this summer and said the kid is as good a person off the ice as he is skilled on it. Rantanen was skilled enough himself to play in the AHL All-Star Game festivities, one of several players 20 and under to make the mid-season classic along with Toronto’s William Nylander, San Diego’s Nick Ritchie and Manitoba’s Eric Comrie. It would seem as though his stay in San Antonio will be short, but really, there’s no rush. The Avalanche will still have a pretty deep forward unit next season, with Jarome Iginla signed through 2016-17. But the fact Colorado coach Patrick Roy has spread out his weapons over three lines at times would seem to indicate Rantanen could easily take a spot next season. And the time he’s getting on the penalty kill in San Antonio only adds to his arsenal of skills, which also include a deadly wrist shot and big, sturdy frame. Rantanen said he learned a lot just from the six games he spent with the Avalanche, so it goes without saying that he’d love another crack at the lineup next fall. “It was a dream come true to play in the NHL,” he said. “So I will do everything I can to get back there.” Based on his track record so far, there’s no doubt he’ll be successful in that venture.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the Future Watch edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.