All of these achievements were hard earned, and his final stat line not only led the San Antonio Rampage, the minor-league affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche, but was also one of the best among American Hockey League rookies as well.
Rantanen received recognition for his strong season on Thursday as he and Providence Bruins forward Frank Vatrano were voted co-winners of the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding rookie for the 2015-16 season.
“It’s a big honor for me, and it’s a big achievement too in my career,” Rantanen said of the award. “I have to thank my linemates, coaching staff and everybody who has worked with me this year and helped me. Without them, it wouldn’t be happening. This is a team sport, so you need everybody to play well.”
His 60 points (24 goals and 36 assists) in 52 games ranked second with AHL rookies, just one behind Providence's Austin Czarnik's 61 points (20 goals and 41 assists). However, Czarnik played in 16 more contests than the Avs prospect.
Rantanen, who ended up ninth overall in league points, set new franchise rookie records while leading San Antonio in all three scoring categories (goals, assists and points). He recorded at least a point in 42 of his 52 outings with the Rampage, and his three goals on Jan. 23 tied a franchise most. The rookie also led the team for the most points in a game, collecting four on two occasions (Nov. 7 and Feb. 5).
The Nousiainen, Finland, native's journey began in Sunrise, Florida, on June 26 when he was selected 10th overall by Colorado at the 2015 NHL Draft.
Rantanen worked hard during the Avalanche’s development and training camps and earned a spot on the final 23-man roster for the season opener.
When he made his NHL debut on Oct. 8, Rantanen became just the fifth 18-year-old to make Colorado's opening-night lineup in the last seven years. He remained with the club for its first six games before being assigned to the Rampage on Oct. 22.
“I think I achieved my goal when I went to training camp, and I got to start with the Avalanche and then I got sent down,” he said. “I understand, I wasn’t playing a lot, so it was good for me to come [to San Antonio] and play a lot.”
The coaching staff also made a change to Rantanen’s position during the season, moving him from right wing to center.
“I played center when I was younger but the last couple of years I played only winger,” he said of the switch. “Of course, there’s some things you need to work out, faceoffs and D-zone, don’t lose your guys, but I feel more comfortable now with it, so it was good. At center, you have the puck more.”
On Feb. 1, Rantanen became the second-youngest player to ever participate in the AHL’s All-Star Classic as a member of the Pacific Division All-Stars. He competed in the Puck Control Relay, Pass and Score, and Breakaway Relay events during the skills competition. In the round-robin All-Star Game, he had one goal on two shots during the exhibition in Syracuse, New York.
Rantanen’s incredible season was also highlighted by a gold-medal performance as captain of the Finnish squad at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland, from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5. In seven games, the forward notched two goals and collected three assists.
When Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon went down with knee injuries during Colorado’s final weeks of the season, Rantanen received his second NHL call-up on March 19. He skated in three games with the Avalanche before being reassigned on March 26 to finish the year in San Antonio.
Despite the Rampage missing the playoffs, Rantanen is still thankful for the experience he received in the Alamo City.
“We had a good start to the year, and then we had a tough time in the middle of the season, and now we’re playing good again,” he said of the team, which finished the campaign with nine wins in its final 11 contests. “Of course it’s tough to not make the playoffs, but we just have to learn from it and try to be stronger next year.”
The 19-year-old was named to the AHL All-Rookie Team on April 9, becoming the second player in franchise history to be awarded this honor. The next day, he became the first Rampage player to be named to the AHL’s Second All-Star Team.
“I think it has helped me a lot to get used to the North American game,” Rantanen said on playing in the AHL. “It’s a lot different than in Europe – the lifestyle and traveling, you might be 10 days on the road, so it’s a lot different than I got used to in Finland. This year was a good learning experience, and hopefully, I can take it to Colorado next year.”
Rantanen will look to take a hot streak into next season as well after he recorded 10 points (three goals and seven assists) in his final 10 games.
While his offensive output was noticeable, the young Finn might be most proud of his defensive development.
“I think [my] defensive game and [playing] center, you have to defend a lot more than being winger, so it’s a lot different game,” Rantanen said of his improvements and takeaways from the year. “That’s the biggest thing I think, and [my] all-around game.”
Overall, the 2015-16 campaign had some unforgettable moments for the teenager.
“World Juniors in Finland was probably the biggest thing, winning the gold medal in front of all of our fans, family and friends,” he said. “Playing nine NHL games, it was a dream come true, and just being the rookie of the year. It’s a big honor.”
Rantanen's first season in North America was undoubtedly a memorable one that included plenty of moments that he'll certainly cherish for years. And he is just getting started.