It was the night of Jan. 14, a chilly evening following a day game against Nashville, when the rookie stood to speak. In Boulder, Colo., a slow, cool wind swept outside a steakhouse in the mountains. Hours after yet another loss in what was a year full of them, the Colorado Avalanche had taken over the restaurant for the team’s annual rookie party.
As part of the gathering, Colorado’s newest players were tasked with treating its veterans to fine cuts of meat and finer bottles of wine. But there was also entertainment on the agenda. After the meal, it was the duty of the Avalanche rookies to stand in front of the team and offer a show of comedy.
Mikko Rantanen rose, uneasy. The Finnish left winger was one of the Avs’ rising stars, eventually the leading goal-scorer on a club with plenty of young talent, yet he was still just 20. What could he possibly say to win over this group of seasoned pros?
He focused on another youngish teammate, 26-year-old defenseman Tyson Barrie, who, by that point in the losing season, held a particularly rough plus-minus rating. In his second language, Rantanen began.
“What’s the same,” he asked the room, “between Winnipeg and Tyson Barrie by January?”
After a beat, the punchline: “They’re both minus-25.”
Don Rickles it may not have been, but the dig broke up the room with laughter, and even Barrie had to chuckle. The night, thanks in part to Rantanen’s ribbing – and his $5,000 share of the bill – was a hit.
What’s next, the Avs hope, is that Rantanen can bring the same amount of triumph to this team on the ice, too. For all its fine, young skill, Colorado has been a dog in the standings for some time, only reaching the playoffs once since 2010. In 2016-17, the team won just 22 games, the franchise’s worst season in more than a quarter century – and their 48 points was the fewest by any NHL team in the salary cap era.
Hold up the Avs’ roster just right – Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog – and this looks like it could be a winning club. Colorado needs another boost from Rantanen, however, to truly break through. It was, after all, Rantanen’s 20 goals that led the team during his first full season in Colorado. Suddenly, though the Avs always held a strong opinion of Rantanen, drafting him 10th overall in 2015, the team has on its hands a player with the look of a breakout star.
His rookie season held all kinds of milestones, none of them more memorable than his first NHL goal, a power play snipe that beat Winnipeg netminder Michael Hutchinson. Rantanen was so jazzed up in the moment that he didn’t even realize it was his first goal until much later. After the season, the Avalanche presented him with the puck, encased in a special glass box to commemorate the achievement.
The NHL lifestyle enamored him, too – the chartered planes, the fancy hotels and meals, all much different than his first season in North America, spent largely with the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage. New York and California, he reported, were especially cool places to visit among NHL destinations. In terms of in rink
atmosphere, he found nothing matched the buzz inside the league’s arenas across Canada.
All that was fine, but Rantanen knows it means little without winning. If he is to be part of the group that leads Colorado out of the wilderness, he knows it’ll take more than what the team had to give last season. He has learned early in this league that points are vital but so, too, is defense. Colorado surrendered an NHL-worst 276 goals in 2016-17, and Rantanen has earmarked his own defensive responsibilities as what he’d most like to improve next year.
“The little things,” he said, “matter in the NHL.”
Rantanen believes the Avs can make the playoffs with this core, as soon, perhaps, as next season.
“Everybody’s going to be hungry for next year,” he said. “Because this year was as bad as it can be almost.”
Indeed, there is room for improvement, even from Rantanen, whose rookie accomplishments were largely overshadowed in a season that featured so many scintillating first-year players. Forget Toronto’s Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander – even among Finnish rookies, Rantanen lost the hype battle to countrymen Patrik Laine and Sebastian Aho, who starred for Winnipeg and Carolina.
There will be time to break out in Year 2, when everything for Rantanen in the NHL won’t be quite as new as it once was. Even, of course, the team party next winter.
“It’s going to be fun next year,” Rantanen said, “when I’m not the rookie."