For whatever reason, there has yet to be a Finnish player who can be considered a success with the New Jersey Devils. There have been many good to great players from the other big nations in hockey that have suited up for the franchise. Yet, this eludes the Finns. Esa Tikkanen was arguably the biggest name but he also played only nine games with the team. According to Hockey Reference, a whopping thirteen Finland-born players appeared in at least one game with the Devils and only one has surpassed 100 games - Taipo Levo. Tuomo Ruutu will likely become the second, but that's the bar being set here. That can all change at the 2015 NHL Draft as the Devils will likely have the opportunity to select someone who would not only easily be their best Finnish prospect ever, but one of the top forwards in the draft: Mikko Rantanen.
Who is Mikko Rantanen?
Mikko Rantanen is big right winger who has come up through TPS Turku's system. His prospect profile at NHL.com lists him at 6'4" and 211 pounds and he shoots left. He was born on October 29, 1996, so he's one of the older prospects in this year's draft class. Central Scouting Services has named him the top European-based skater in this year's draft. His stats, provided here by Elite Prospects, showcase why.
Remember that Rantanen was born on October 29, 1996 so he just finished up his 18-year old season with TPS. This means he made his Liiga debut at the age of 16, played more with the seniors than the juniors in his 17-year old season, and he was an assistant captain with TPS at age 18. He only appeared with his junior team in 2014-15 for their playoffs as TPS finished second-from-last in the Liiga. That's very impressive in of itself. As you all may have noticed, he's been a featured player on Finland's youth international teams. His four goals at the WJCs certainly garnered plenty of attention.
However, let's look a little closer at his recent season with TPS. We can do that because the Liiga website has more detailed stats than, say, the Ontario Hockey League. 28 points in 56 games may not seem like much, yet it was good enough for Rantanen to be tied for 58th in the entire league in scoring. Furthermore, Rantanen finished second on TPS in total points and tied for fourth in goals scored. TPS was not a good team, but Rantanen certainly wasn't the issue. If anything, I'd argue he was snake bit. He took 177 shots to get those nine goals, which places his shooting percentage at just over 5%. Last season, while his role was more limited in terms of games and likely minutes, Rantanen scored five goals on 51 shots - a shooting percentage just below 10%. I'm not saying that is his true percentage in the Liiga, but he's likely better than a 5% shooter. Anyway, while the Liiga website doesn't have average ice time for prior years, it does for 2014-15 and Rantanen averaged over sixteen minutes per game. That's significant ice time for, again, an 18 year old winger playing with men. Alone, that's impressive. With the other stats, it's more impressive. I'd be lying if I didn't say I was surprised to see former Devils draft pick Ilkka Pikkarainen average more minutes, but it was what it was in Turku. The main point remains: Rantanen produced quite a bit in a professional league despite a bad shooting percentage and a bad TPS team. It's a big reason why he's likely going to be the first European player selected in this year's draft.
What Others Have Said About Rantanen
As he's the top European prospect in this year's class, plenty of people have plenty to say about the big Finnish winger. Let's begin with Curtis Joe at Elite Prospects. This is what he wrote back in 2014 about him:
An exceptionally talented playmaker and always a consistent threat on the ice; Rantanen is a combination of elite-level hockey sense, silky smooth hands, and nimble skating. Needs to improve his shot and physical play, as he doesn't take advantage of his size in many situations. All-in-all, an intelligent, big-bodied forward that oozes skill. (Curtis Joe, EP 2014)
This seems to fall in line with what Future Considerations has on him in their public profile on Rantanen. This was written in December 2014.
A strong three-zone playmaker who is also defensively responsible…has an awkward upright skating stride, but gets from Point A to Point B just fine…not a big "wow" factor to his game, but is a smooth, fluid, big-bodied forward who can be hard to handle…uses his strength and reach, along with his vision and hands, to protect the puck…has good instincts when to pass and when to hold…puck seems to follow him around the ice…good in his own zone and consistently makes himself available for a breakout pass…has impressive hockey sense and awareness…needs to work on his shot and add more muscle mass to his growing frame. (December 2014)
For whatever reason, FC's profile listed Rantanen's weight at 180 pounds. EP had him at 209 and his profile at NHL.com has him at 211. I guess Future Considerations just needs to update that number; I'd agree about the muscle mass if he was truly 180. At around 210, I would suspect he's got plenty of it. Anyway, both blurbs state that his shot could use some work. Ben Kerr's profile on Rantanen at Last Word On Sports has a more nuanced take. You should read Kerr's profiles as they're worth your time; here's the section which includes his shot and strength.
Mikko Rantanen is a big player who plays a power forward style of game. At six-foot-four he has the ideal size that NHL teams crave. He works extremely hard along the boards and is extremely effective at winning battles in international tournaments in his age group. He may not throw huge hits, but he uses his size effectively in the corners and in establishing position in the offensive zone. He also drives the net hard and can finish in close. He could stand to work on his shot though, as he could use more power but already has a very good release. The added power may come with additional upper body strength. This is not to say that his shot is bad not, its not; but it could be elite with a little work. Rantanen controls the puck well down low on the cycle and has the vision to spot open teammates and the passing skill to feather a tape-to-tape pass through the tiniest of openings. He is more of a playmaker than a goal scorer right now, as he often looks to make the pass instead of taking available shots.
When I usually read that a prospect needs to work on his shot, my inclination is to think it's not good. Reading what Kerr wrote eases that inclination - and it makes sense given that Rantanen wasn't shy from shooting in the Liiga. It's possible that Liiga defines shots as shot attempts but I can't be certain. In any case, there's plenty to like here. He uses his frame without going too wild (also evidenced by his PIM count) and he's able to pass and control the puck well. All important skills for a forward at any age, and doing well enough in them garner praise is expected for a top forward prospect. Kerr compares his style of play to Jakub Voracek. I think whoever picks him would be pleased if that comparison bears out.
Craig Button made the same comparison in this profile at TSN, which is a part of Bob McKenzie's final rankings. While this profile is short on text and has an auto-playing video, you'll want to watch the video. In 45 seconds, Button explains that he could be a very good goal scorer in the NHL if he does work on that shot. That falls in line with what the other profiles have written earlier. While Button rated him 16th, McKenzie has him at #10. Based on the other rankings listed in his EP profile, the latter is more in line with them.
Lastly, I want to highlight this profile on Rantanen by Steve Kournianos at The Draft Analyst. Kournianos has been building up his site and profiles like this will help it grow. In his scouting report, there were two sections I wanted to highlight:
He has been the beneficiary of faith in his potential while playing in Finland’s top professional league. In fact, he was moved up to TPS’s top line before he reached his 18th birthday. Granted, TPS was a poor team with an average age of 24, and the coach likely ran out of options. But once he was given that opportunity, "running with it" would be an understatement — his points-per-game average following the WJC jumped from 0.35 to 0.63.
Most impressive about Rantanen is how mobile he is for his size; his skating was once a serious concern, but he clearly made strides to improve his mobility as he now possesses a quick first step and a powerful wide stride. Attempts to move him to center did not bear fruitful results, so he was nevertheless shuffled from left wing to right wing, where he has reinforced his reputation as a dominant threat.
I always appreciate it when a scouting report - be it paid or free - notes a player's role on the team improving. Always good to see a prospective talent get a promotion and make the most of it. I wanted to highlight what Kournianos about Rantanen's skating as I think that's an important factor for any prospect. If someone can't move well, then they're going to struggle at the next level. Kournianos noted that not only has Rantanen improved in this regard, but it seems like a strength. That bodes well for Rantanen - and for whoever picks him.
A Little Video
Between playing for TPS and being a highly rated prospect, there's plenty of video on Rantanen. There are three videos I want to highlight. First off, there's this highlight reel of Rantanen's play at the 2015 WJCs. While the World Junior Championships are a short tournament, it does allow a player to show off a little of what they can do against some of the best U-20 players in the world. This video is by bigwhite06 showcases Rantanen's four goals at the WJCs as well as other plays he made. While two of the four were fortuitous bounces, there's a lot to like from watching him.
Second, this is a highlight video of Rantanen which features plenty of moments while playing for TPS. The song used for the video isn't clean, so beware for bad language. If it does bother you, please mute it and enjoy over three minutes of Rantanen making plays.
Lastly, here's another WJC-based video. But it's worth your time as it is by HockeyPwns. It's a shift-by-shift video of Rantanen in Finland's game against Slovakia with commentary. It's eleven-and-a-half minutes well spent for those who want to see how a player looks throughout a game with the good, bad, and in-between shifts.
An Opinion of Sorts
I've seen plenty of rankings where Rantanen is listed around the 7th to 10th overall range. The way I see it, there's a top tier of forwards in this year's draft class and then there's a second tier for forward prospects. Obviously, the first tier includes McDavid, Eichel, Strome, and as time went on, Marner. As the Devils are picking sixth overall, it's more and more likely that if they do decide to pick a forward, the prospect will be in that second tier. That is, they're great prospects, they're just not on the level of two sure-fire NHLers and two potential #1 overall picks in a draft class that doesn't have a McDavid or Eichel. This tier includes Pavel Zacha, Mathew Barzal, Timo Meier, Lawson Crouse, and today's subject Rantanen fit in. If I were the Devils, I wouldn't be concerned on whether Rantanen is truly the eighth or tenth overall pick. If they like him enough, then they should take him at #6 and be done with it. I don't think it's that much of a reach in the case of Rantanen (or Barzal's, for that matter).
Let's take a step back and consider the prospect as a whole. He's an 18-year old with a man's body, who's played in a man's league for three seasons, who's been a regular on his team for two seasons, and was one of the bright spots of a bad 2014-15 for TPS. He's been productive at the international level, which justifies the notion that he's the best draft-eligible prospects based in Europe. While some noted he could be shooting more, he shot the puck quite a bit and that's also apparent in the video. The knock on him is that his shot isn't perfect, but that's due to power as opposed to release. He skates well, he's not a non-factor on defense, he's a good passer, and he controls the puck well. He plays right wing and it probably won't be long before he hits the NHL for good. Given the Devils' current roster and long-term prospect needs, it's hard to argue that prospect like Rantanen wouldn't satisfy either those needs.
While I'm not certain I would definitely take Rantanen above the others in the second tier of forward prospects, I think it's a more than justifiable selection at sixth overall. Ultimately, I would be quite pleased if the Devils picked Rantanen. Should that happen the hope is that he goes on to become more than just the most accomplish Finnish player in franchise history but a key part of the re-build the team is undergoing. Based on what I've seen and read about him, I think that's entirely possible.
Now that you've read and seen more of Mikko Rantanen, I want to know what you think about him. What about his game impresses you more: what others have said about his game or what he has done in TPS so far? Do you think the Devils should take Rantanen at sixth overall, if he is available? If not, why not? Would it be a case of there's something about Rantanen that puts you off or just a matter that another prospect might be better? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Mikkor Rantanen in the comments. Thank you for reading.