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NHL Prospects

Mikko Rantanen proving ‘rookie’ label means nothing in AHL

Many fans are under the assumption that scoring in the American Hockey League is easy.

They see AHL-eligible forwards, usually 20 years old, unless they are international or USDP skaters (in which case they become AHL-eligible as soon as they are signed), as the equivalent of major junior hockey players, capable of scoring as many as 100 points in a single season.

But even the most elite of prospects have trouble finding their respective games in the AHL, and that’s because it’s where they make the transition between run-and-gun junior hockey and professional NHL hockey.

Mikko Rantanen is having no such issues in the minors this season though, and it may even earn him an appearance in the NHL at some point in the spring.

A native of Nousiainen, Finland, Rantanen spent the past three seasons playing at least 15 games for TPS in the Finnish elite league, Liiga. Playing professional hockey since he was about 15 or 16 certainly helped when it came to playing as an under-ager for the Finnish team at the 2015 U20 World Junior Championship last year, where he scored four goals and was named a top-three player on his team.

Last season (his draft year), Rantanen, named an alternate captain for his innate leadership, scored 28 points (9G, 19A) in 56 games for TPS. Throughout the season, he went from a fringe first-rounder to at one point a projected top-five pick.

He was ultimately selected 10th overall by the Colorado Avalanche, desperate for some offensive upgrades on the wing. The versatile forward fit perfectly in their future plans, as he can play both sides with ease.

Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic and head coach Patrick Roy have handled their prized prospect’s development with excellence, giving him a six-game trial in the NHL early in the season to get his feet wet before assigning him to full-time AHL duty. He currently ranks first amo g rookie skaters and ninth among all skaters in AHL scoring with 48 points (20G, 28A), and he’s done it in just 39 games. A point per game pace is nearly unheard of for AHL rookies, but he has very clearly separated himself from the pack.

And perhaps most importantly, Rantanen learned in this very successful rookie year what it is like to win; he captained the U20 Finnish WJC team to a gold medal victory two months ago, finishing the tournament with two goals and three assists in seven games.

Despite his performance, though, coach Roy remained cautious with how he was going to handle the 19-year-old Rantanen as a young professional hockey player following the WJC win.

“I’m very happy the way he played,” Roy told the Denver Post. “I was very happy that he went and played in the World Juniors, he was the captain of the team, and I thought it would be a great experience for him. I think it’s going to make him an even better leader, a better hockey player. But no, I believe he needs a year in the minors to learn our style of play, smaller ice, and I think he’ll benefit a lot from it.

“I’m not saying there’s no chance he will be called up here and there, but I’d be very surprised if he came in and played regularly for us.”

Coaches often put the veil of secrecy up against reporters as to what their intentions are with regard to lineup changes and prospects call-ups, so despite what he said, there’s a good chance we will see Rantanen with the Avalanche again this season, even if it’s for just a handful of games before he is sent back to San Antonio for the remainder of 2015-16. Beccause of the rules around entry-level contracts, he can only play three more NHL games before a year of his ELC is burned, something Sakic is likely unwilling to do.

Whatever the case may be as far as his NHL status is concerned, Rantanen is the odds-on favorite for AHL Rookie of the Year this season, but he is also challenging Toronto Marlies forward William Nylander (currently with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL) for AHL Player of the Year as well. Rantanen has made such waves this year that barring unforseen circumstances, he is all but guaranteed to be a member of the Colorado Avalanche full-time next season.

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