Mikko Rantanen is on the verge of becoming the first Colorado Avalanche player in 20 years to break the 50 goal barrier. If he continues playing the way he has all year, there’s a good chance he tops 100 points for the first time in his career.
He’s been a terror coming down the right wing as a left shot since entering the NHL full-time in 2016. When he cuts to the middle of the ice, you get glimpses of prime Jaromir Jagr with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Minus the mullet, of course.
“Yeah, I hear it every now and then,” Rantanen told me of the comparison. “He was really good.”
Rantanen is, without a doubt, the best player in Avalanche history to play on their off-wing. For the longest time, the gold standard to do it in an Avalanche uniform was Valeri Kamensky. The uber-talented Russian winger was a right-handed shot, but preferred to play on the left side. From 1995 to 1999, Kamensky accumulated 106 goals and 261 points, and also helped the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup in 1996.
I have fond memories of watching Kamensky fly up the wing on his backhand. He was my favorite player growing up, and of those 106 goals, a good chunk of them came from him cutting to the middle of the ice on his forehand, something players who play on their off-wing excel at.
Rantanen has surpassed what Kamensky did in an Avalanche uniform, and he’s really just getting started.
Drafted 10th overall in 2015 as a right winger, he knew pretty early on that playing the off-side was the best fit for him.
“Pretty young, I would say” Rantanen told me. “I was playing under-20’s, under-18’s. I think you can be more dangerous offensively from that side. Obviously, (there’s) defensive things you’ve got to work on. You’re kind of playing with your backhand more because you have to get it up the wall. You’ve got to receive more passes on your backhand than forehand, so you’ve got to work on your backhand game a lot to play off.”
A big part of being successful on your off-side is that ability to play on your backhand. Rantanen has one of the best backhand shots in the league (see here), but it’s not just about your shot. There’s a lot more that goes into it.
“You have to have a certain level of skill and ability on your backhand,” Jared Bednar said about playing on the off-side. “You’re going to end up on your backhand a lot. You have to have an elite level of skill to be able to catch and receive passes and make plays on your backhand with the same consistency you do on your forehand. Some guys are really dangerous over there. Mikko is one of them.”
God-given natural ability is one thing, but you have to work to improve your skills. When it came to playing on his backhand, Rantanen put in the work.
“Yeah, I did (practice it a lot),” Rantanen said. “When I got to under-20’s and playing in the men’s league when I was young, I just tried to, after practice, work on handling hard passes on the backhand, and try to work on passes all the time. I worked on it a lot because I knew I wanted to play on the right side more. Receiving passes and just working, making breakout passes on your backhand more.”
When it came to describing one of his favorite parts of playing on the off-side, Rantanen started to gesture with his hands. A lot. And it’s one of the pieces of his game that is most Jagr-like.
That would be his ability to protect the puck coming down the wing.
“On the right side, it’s easier to take the defenseman wide,” Rantanen said. “You can reach with your one hand and kind of protect with this hand, right?”
The hand he was referring to is the bottom hand on his stick. On the off-wing, he can use his top hand to hold his stick and corral the puck, while his bottom hand holds off any oncoming defenders. At 6’4″, 214 pounds, it’s not easy to get the puck off him, especially with his reach. And on the off-side, it’s easier to protect that puck, making it even more difficult for defenders to get it away from him.
The other side? Well, he’s not a fan.
“This side (strong-side), it’s kind of harder,” he said. “You have to basically have two hands on the stick. Some guys do it with the bottom hand, but I don’t know, I’m not very good at it. So I’d rather be on this (off) side.”
But the biggest benefit of playing on that off-wing comes on the offensive side of the game. Your body is open to see the ice, and you have the ability to cut to the middle of the ice to shoot. And at a moments notice, you can be ready to unleash a one-timer if your teammates find you. Rantanen is one of the best at that.
“If you study guys who play their off-side, lots of them are shooters,” Bednar said. “They can open up and use their one-timer, so they like it in the offensive zone.”
“Entering, mostly offensive zone, it’s easier to cut middle, go to the middle of the ice, you know? From this side (strong-side), you have to kind of pull it to your backhand,” he said. “Here (off-side), you basically have it on your forehand all the time. That’s kind of why I like to play on the right side.”
With 49 goals and 92 points in 75 games, I’d say he’s right.