Mikko Rantanen didn’t plan on or expect to win the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the American Hockey League’s outstanding rookie.
The 19-year-old Finland native and Colorado Avalanche prospect knew he had a strong season, but looking across the league he knew the goal-per-game rate (albeit in less games) of the Providence Bruins’ Frank Vatrano would be tough to beat.
“I wasn’t waiting on the results or anything like that, I really didn’t think about it,” Rantanen said. “I knew Vatrano was so good this season. So I guess we split the votes, which is funny.”
In the end, Rantanen and Vatrano shared the award. It was the second time since the AHL first presented a top rookie award in 1948 that a pair of first-year players shared the honors.
While he shared league-wide honors, Rantanen was far and away the top rookie in the Western Conference this season.
In 51 games with the San Antonio Rampage, he had 60 points (24 goals, 36 assists) while finishing with a +19 rating on a team that finished last in the Pacific Division. His numbers would have been even better, but he missed AHL time due to NHL opportunities, a minor injury, and winning a World Junior Championship with Finland.
Not too bad for a 19-year-old in his first year in North America.
“It was a good year, I learned a lot,” Rantanen said. “I learned the North American game and really had a good experience. I got to see the NHL, and I’m going to work harder for that next year.”
He will have to earn his spot in Colorado, but it seems like a foregone conclusion that Rantanen has played his final game in San Antonio.
He would have spent more time with Colorado late in the regular season, but he was strategically sent back to San Antonio after he played nine games so his entry-level contract would slide until next season.
“He’d be in Colorado if it wasn’t for his contract,” San Antonio head coach Dean Chynoweth said earlier this season. “He’s ready for that level.”
Even though he shifted roles, Rantanen manhandled the AHL this season.
He played both center and wing for San Antonio. He was more comfortable on the wing, but said playing center will be more valuable going forward.
“Whatever I do with Colorado, playing in the middle (with San Antonio) helps me know what to do defensively, both if I’m there or what my teammate is doing,” Rantanen said. “Defense, I think that’s the most important thing for me going forward.”
While he had a strong season, Rantanen’s team missed the playoffs so he headed back to Finland this week.
He has had conversations about potentially joining Team Finland for the IIHF World Championship, and has plans to work out with a group of players that include current NHL players Rasmus Ristolainen, Lauri Korpikoski, and Joni Ortio.
“It’ll be a good summer,” Rantanen said. “I wish we were getting ready for playoffs, but I learned a lot this year and want to come back even stronger in North America (next season).”
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