What a difference a year makes. About 365 days ago, the Colorado Avalanche were coming out of a skid that saw the franchise win just three games out of 20. They would go on to post the worst record in the NHL in the post-lockout era, becoming the only team to earn fewer than 50 points.
But now, the Avs are positively feisty. They recently had a 10-game win streak snapped and there’s definite talk of center Nathan MacKinnon earning his first Hart Trophy as league MVP. Of course, MacKinnon is not doing it all on his own. His top-line wingers, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, have also been great and Rantanen in particular is turning the sophomore slump notion on its head.
The second-year Finn has already blown by his rookie totals in points and will soon eclipse his goals mark from last year. In fact, Rantanen is on pace for a 30-goal campaign and 82 points – a pretty fantastic result for a kid who is still on the ascent.
Rantanen has been impressive his entire Colorado tenure. The big winger spent nine games with the Avs right after he was drafted 10th overall in 2015, then went down to the AHL in order to get a bigger role and play in all situations. And while the big line of Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho and Jesse Puljujarvi will be remembered as the drivers of Finland’s gold-medal world junior squad on home ice in Helsinki that season, it was Rantanen and Kasperi Kapanen who provided timely offense once the other teams focused on the kid line. Rantanen’s international success transferred back to the pro ranks in North America and after a record-breaking rookie season with San Antonio, he has made an impact in Colorado – especially this year.
“Mikko’s another guy with a great skill set, a big-bodied guy who can skate and make plays,” said coach Jared Bednar. “Him, Nathan and Landeskog have really formed a good bond on and off the ice. Second year in the league, he knows what to expect. He came out to a bit of a slow start but he really found his stride lately because of his work ethic and commitment to play the right way.”
That line chemistry has gone a long way in Colorado’s success this season. For Rantanen, it comes down to knowing his role and using his versatility to make an impact.
“There’s three different kind of players,” Rantanen said. “Nate’s in the middle, everyone knows he’s a superstar; he’s one of the fastest guys in the league and drags defensemen into him and makes a lot of room for us. Gabe is a great two-way guy and strong on the puck. I try to be in the middle – make plays for them and finish chances while being strong on the puck.”
It has certainly worked out so far. Rantanen, along with the offense he provides, has also been one of Colorado’s best possession players this season. And while the club still isn’t strong in that metric, the Avs are better under Bednar than they were when Patrick Roy was coach. Sure, last season was a disaster, but with improved goaltending, a tighter-knit group and “better everything,” as MacKinnon put it, this season has been a return to respectability for the franchise.
Right now, the Avs sit in wild card spot in the West and while holding on to that position is always difficult in that conference, it’s a far better slot than many predicted the team would be in at this point in the season. Give MacKinnon a lot of credit for leading the team, but don’t forget about Rantanen’s contributions, either.