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Hard Work Helps Rantanen, Skille Make Roster

by Ron Knabenbauer / Colorado Avalanche

Training camp and the preseason is a time to make an impression. For rookie Mikko Rantanen and veteran Jack Skille, they did that and then some to make the Colorado Avalanche's opening-night roster.

The two right wings survived the Avs' final cuts on Tuesday morning and will be on the club's 23-man lineup when the team opens the 2015-16 season on Thursday night against the Minnesota Wild.

Rantanen and Skille's hard work on and off the ice was noticeable after three weeks of practice drills, scrimmages and six preseason games, and it gave Avalanche coaches and management confidence that both players will have a positive impact on the team this year.

"I was excited, for sure," said Skille on making the team. "All that hard work seemed to pay off. The road is not finished. I still have a lot of hard work to do, and I have to play consistent and continue to do my job and do my part and hopefully it still pans out."

The relief and enthusiasm for Skille was the same for Rantanen, who becomes the fifth 18-year-old player to make the club's opening-night roster in the last seven years. He joins Matt Duchene (2009), Gabriel Landeskog (2011) and Nathan MacKinnon (2013) as current Colorado players who broke into the league after being drafted the previous summer.

"It is my goal to be here, and now it has happened," Rantanen said. "I'm pretty happy, but of course I have to keep working hard and trying to play well and help the team win every game."

Rantanen was one of the more solid players throughout camp and the preseason, which assured head coach Patrick Roy that the Finnish forward was ready to make the jump to the big leagues in North America.

"He's played really well," Roy said after practice. "We didn’t really have a plan to start out with. We wanted to see how he was going to play, and he's been impressive. I like his work ethic. I like the way he is on the ice. He's strong on the puck. He seems ready to me."

Rantanen signed a three-year, entry-level deal with the club in July; just week's after being selected No. 10 overall in the 2015 draft. With him not being picked in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, he knew he would start the year on one of three professional clubs: with Colorado, with San Antonio in the AHL or back with his Finnish team, TPS Turku.

The knowledge of having a guaranteed place to play this season was something Skille wanted, but he had to go about it another way.

Without a contract to his name, Skille joined the Avalanche for training camp on Sept. 17 on a professional tryout (PTO), looking to earn his way to a new deal and a spot on the club.

"Although mentally it was hard, it was a good opportunity here from the start," Skille said of being on a PTO. "They noticed my hard work, and obviously I had some good play that helped out."

Skille did enough to standout among the 64 players that attended camp, which included two others that were on PTO agreements.

"I like the energy that Jack has brought to the team," Roy said. "He understands his role. He will play on the fourth line, and he accepts it. It's good for us. Last year, we talked a lot at the end of the season about the lack of depth and I think he is going to help us a lot."

Starting off on the fourth line for Thursday's home opener against the Wild is fine by Skille.

"I don't mind being physical. That is part of my game," he said. "In fact, if I'm not playing physical that is where my game is lacking."

Rantanen is expected to play a top nine role with the team and will be on a line with fellow Europeans Carl Soderberg (Sweden) and Borna Rendulic (Croatia) for opening night.

After having only played five games ever on the smaller NHL-sized ice before camp—all of which came at last year's World Junior Championship in Montreal—Rantanen sure looks more comfortable on the 200-by-85-foot sheet now.

Competing against grown men for the last few years in Liiga, the Finnish pro league, also helped him with his transition to the top tier of the sport.

"It's different to play against junior [players] instead of playing against men. It's a big difference," he said. "Men are bigger and the game is faster and there is more battling. Of course the NHL is more similar [to the Finnish pro league] than junior. It has helped me a lot."

Both Rantanen and Skille had plenty of opportunities to show off their skill during the preseason, with each playing in five contests and scoring a goal apiece.

Now comes the more difficult task for the forwards; that is to continue to play a solid game every night in order to stay on the NHL roster until the springtime.

For a seven-year veteran like Skille that has seen his fair share of time in the NHL and AHL, staying even-keel through a game and during the season is the kind of advice he would give to a teenager like Rantanen, who is looking to make his mark in the league.

"Don't get too high, don't get too low. It's a long season," the 28-year-old said. "Bounces are going to go your way, but they also will not go your way. It's your job as a pro to make sure no matter what, if they are going your way or not, you're somewhere in the middle, and you're working hard every day and you're staying consistent.

"Consistency is probably the biggest thing in this league and to stay in this league. One or two games won't keep you here. It's an 82-game season. It's a marathon, not a sprint. So it's being consistent through and through."

For both players, the starting line for that marathon is about to begin.

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