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Still underappreciated around the NHL, Mikko Rantanen has grown his game to an elite level

The Colorado Avalanche star has turned into one of the best wingers in the NHL, yet Mikko Rantanen still doesn’t get the recognition he deserves

Arizona Coyotes v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

When someone says “Colorado Avalanche Superstar” the name that follows is almost always Nathan MacKinnon—or maybe Cale Makar. But there is a third member of the Avalanche who deserves to have that superlative added to his name: Mikko Rantanen.

Having his skating style once described as “Bambi on ice,” Rantanen spent the last few seasons transforming himself from an awkward, lanky teenager into a dominant offensive force who is now one of the best two-way forwards in all of hockey.

Now known affectionately by Avalanche fans as The Moose, Rantanen is set to enter the final leg of the season sitting third in league goal scoring behind only Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid—ever heard of ‘em?

Forced out of the lineup due to COVID protocol, Rantanen was passed by Connor McDavid in the race for the Richard Trophy, but the big Finn remains behind only two of the three best forwards in the NHL.

With 26 goals and 26 assists, Rantanen was one of only two Avalanche players—Nazem Kadri being the other—who had played in each of Colorado’s first 43 games this season before he was put on the NHL’s COVID protocol list last week. He has become one of the most consistent offensive performers in the NHL and has proven this year that he deserves to be in the discussion as a lot more than just a “complement to Nathan MacKinnon.”

It’s not just goal scoring where Rantanen has excelled this season. He has turned into one of the league’s best two-way forwards. While playing on the line that has the best possession numbers in the NHL by a wide margin, Rantanen is putting up the best defensive numbers of his career. His shot suppression and expected-goal numbers are among the best in the league and are at a level that normally reflect bottom-6 defensive specialists, not elite offensive goal scorers.

While he’s more than just a complement to MacKinnon, Rantanen is his perfect partner in crime. The two stars have a chemistry on the ice that is unmatched. Almost every time he is asked about his personal performance, MacKinnon makes a point to talk about Rantanen’s help:

“He is an amazing player to play with...he makes my life really easy.”

Most teams are desperate to find one player good enough to build the team’s offense around—the Avalanche have two. Rantanen is every bit as valuable to his team as Leon Draisaitl is to McDavid and the Oilers—he just doesn’t play in as big a media market.

Heading into the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Rantanen was ranked as the best European player in a historically strong group. Despite that, when the Avalanche drafted him 10th overall, it left many fans confused. Now six seasons into his career, there’s an argument to be made that in a redraft, Rantanen would be selected No. 2 behind only McDavid. At the very least, he’d be in the conversation with Jack Eichel and Mitch Marner.

In the three games he’s missed, the Avs have looked like a far less dangerous team while MacKinnon has looked like a player who is compelled to do too much. Beyond the offensive dominance, Rantanen brings a sense of calm to his teammates. He gives MacKinnon an outlet to rely on that no one else on the team does; as MacKinnon said, Rantanen makes his life easy.

Playing in the shadow of one of the best players in the world, Rantanen may never get the recognition he deserves. That doesn’t make him any less valuable to the Avalanche. Those who watch him on a game-to-game basis know Rantanen has turned into more than just a secondary option behind MacKinnon. He has become one of the best wingers in the NHL and a true superstar that will have a major impact on any success the team has over the next half decade.