Cage Match: Mikko Rantanen vs. Sebastian Aho

by Rick Roos on November 7, 2018

 

As the 2018-19 season unfolds, we see changes in fantasy status of many players, from former stars now barely deserving of a roster spot, to youngsters coming into their own. Perhaps the most significant is players graduating from being very good fantasy assets to true fantasy studs. That’s what appears to be happening with this week’s combatants – Mikko Rantanen and Sebastian Aho. Which one projects to have a more successful 2018-19, and who stands to be better long term? Cage match is on the case!

Career Path and Contract Status

Rantanen, 21, was the 10th overall selection in the 2015 draft and starred in the AHL (60 points in 52 games) that same season after a nine-game trial with the Avs. For 2016-17 he averaged barely better than a point per every other game (38 points in 75 contests); but half of those points came in his final 33 games, leading many to expect a progression in production for 2017-18. What he did instead was break out big time, tallying 84 points after finding great chemistry with Nathan MacKinnon, but concerningly faltering (three points in eight games) when MacKinnon was out of the lineup. Yet so far this season he’s been nothing short of spectacular, currently sitting atop the NHL’s scoring leaders.

Aho, also 21, was selected 35th overall in the same 2015 draft and came stateside following a point per game (45 points in as many games) in his age-18 season in the Finnish Elite League. Aho spent no time in the AHL, suiting up for the Canes for 2016-17 and posting 49 points, with 15 coming in his final 23 games such that there were high expectations for him as well going into last season. And although Aho didn’t explode to the extent Rantanen did, he did post 65 points in 78 games, with 61 coming in his final 69 contests. That alone would’ve had poolies expecting great things from Aho this season; however, it was his 18 points in eight games performance at the spring IIHF World Championships that led many to expect him to have a truly elite 2018-19, which has indeed been the case thus far as he had the NHL’s longest streak of games (12) with at least one point to start the 2018-19 campaign.

Both players are in the last season of their ELCs, before becoming non-arbitration eligible RFAs, with Aho earning slightly more ($0.925M vs. $0.894M) this season as compared to Rantanen.

Ice Time (Data for 2018-19 in this and the other tables reflects games played through November 5)

Season

Total Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

PP Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

SH Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

2018-19

20:54 (M.R.) – 2nd

19:46 (S.A.) – 2nd

4:23 (M.R.) – 2nd

3:33 (S.A.) – 1st

0:02 (M.R.) – 12th (tied)

0:30 (S.A.) – 6th

2017-18

18:58 (M.R.) – 3rd

17:55 (S.A.) – 2nd

3:44 (M.R.) – 1st

2:41 (S.A.) – 1st

0:01 (M.R.) – 13th

0:02 (S.A.) – 10th

2016-17

18:03 (M.R.) – 4th

16:47 (S.A.) – 5th

2:43 (M.R.) – 2nd

2:13 (S.A.) – 4th

0:05 (M.R.) – 13th

0:13 (S.A.) – 9th


For 2016-17 and 2017-18 we have straightforward ice time progression gains and corresponding scoring jumps made by the players. For 2018-19, the number that jumps off the page is Rantanen’s power-play time. It’s bound to drop, right? Maybe not much, if at all. Last season the Avs led the NHL in PP opportunities with 296. To date for 2018-19 they’re on pace for 293, and their team philosophy remains to lean on a PP1 unit. In fact, Rantanen took the ice for 62.9% of Colorado’s PP minutes in 2017-18, but this season he’s up to a whopping 69.8%. Thus, Rantanen is in a true power-play sweet spot which, along with his higher overall ice time, seemingly helps justify his 2018-19 scoring gains.

Looking at the same metrics for Aho, in 2017-18 Carolina was one of six teams which failed to receive 240 PP opportunities. Not only that, but their former coach divvied up power-play time quite evenly, resulting in Aho being team forward PPTOI leader at a mere 2:41 per game, which was fifth lowest among forward team leaders for all 31 teams.

This season Carolina’s power-play opportunities per game are way up (on pace for 298), perhaps manifesting a different approach implemented by new coach Rod Brind’Amour. Beyond that, Brind’Amour seems to be embracing a change in allocating man advantage minutes, as Aho is still team leader among forwards but now is taking the ice for 58.9% of the team’s total power-play time, which, although not nearly in Rantanen’s stratosphere, is still up a good bit from 53.7% last season. As such, Aho should see his PP scoring rise, and, in turn, find points where he didn’t last season. Still though, advantage to Rantanen here.

Secondary Categories

Season

PIMs

(per game)

Hits

(per game)

Blocked Shots (per game)

Shots

(per game)

PP Points

(per game)

2018-19

0.85 (M.R.)

0.43 (S.A.)

1.14 (M.R.)

0.78 (S.A.)

0.85 (M.R.)

0.64 (S.A.)

2.28 (M.R.)

2.71 (S.A.)

0.35 (M.R.)

0.28 (S.A.)

2017-18

0.42 (M.R.)

0.30 (S.A.)

0.39 (M.R.)

0.83 (S.A.)

0.49 (M.R.)

0.21 (S.A.)

2.19 (M.R.)

2.56 (S.A.)

0.43 (M.R.)

0.20 (S.A.)

2016-17

0.29 (M.R.)

0.31 (S.A.)

0.38 (M.R.)

0.62 (S.A.)

0.44 (M.R.)

0.17 (S.A.)

1.77 (M.R.)

2.61 (S.A.)

0.13 (M.R.)

0.19 (S.A.)


Seeing Rantanen’s SOG rate is surprising, as I expected it to be considerably higher. After all, while there are pass-first centers that score a lot without shooting a ton, normally wingers who fill the scoresheet also pepper the net with lots of shots. Need proof? Since 2005-06 there’ve been 54 instances of wingers who posted 85+ points but just one (Brad Marchand last season) did so without 200+ SOG and only three without 225 SOG. That’s concerning since in his breakout season Rantanen had a mere 178 SOG and he’s at a 186 SOG pace thus far this season. Although past results don’t automatically bear upon the present or future, this is concerning data in terms of Rantanen – notwithstanding his red-hot start to 2018-19 and superb PP deployment – being much more than a point-per-game player.

Aho doesn’t have that problem, having fired 200+ SOG in both his full NHL seasons. But he too isn’t exactly an SOG monster, although at least in his case he’s on pace for his highest rate this season, leaving hope his SOG rate isn’t done rising and he can continue his scoring ascent.

Rantanen achieved 84 points last season in large part by tallying 35 on the PP. The good news is that shows he can succeed with the man advantage and likely explains why he’s out there even more this season. But can wingers who take less than 200 SOG and score less than 30 goals really be perennial 30 to 35+ point PPPt scorers? It turns out there’s precedent for an age 22 or younger winger who tallied 35+ PPPts without also scoring 30+ goals or firing 200+ SOG in Ales Hemsky, who went on to twice more have 30+ PPPts without 200 SOG. And Hemsky might have done even better had his career not been derailed by injuries.

As for Aho, his improved power-play deployment has led to more PPPts thus far. Perhaps as important, he still has room for further realistic gains there. And he – as well as poolies who own him – better hope those gains occur if he’s to become a truly elite fantasy forward. After all, of the 70 total instances of 90+ point scorers since the 2005-06 season, only one (Connor McDavid last season) accomplished the feat without at least 25 PPPts in the same campaign, and just ten did so without 30+ PPPts.

As for other multi-cat contributions, Rantanen had nearly identical rates for penalty minutes, hits and blocks in past seasons, which means we can likely chalk up his elevated numbers for 2018-19 thus far as short-term variance. As for Aho, in the past two seasons he had comparable penalty minutes to Rantanen, was much worse in blocks, yet better in hits. Overall neither player will help win these categories but – notwithstanding Rantanen’s unsustainable early numbers for this season – are likely average to only slightly below average in these areas for top scorers.

Luck-Based Metrics

Season

Personal Shooting %

Team Shooting % (5×5)

Individual Points % (IPP)

Offensive Zone Starting % (5×5)

Average Shot Distance

Secondary Assists %

2018-19

15.6% (M.R.)

10.5% (S.A.)

15.2% (M.R.)

10.7% (S.A.)

80.0% (M.R.)

81.0% (S.A.)

55.7% (M.R.)

55.2% (S.A.)

34.3 (M.R.)

27.8 (S.A.)

42% (M.R.)

46% (S.A.)

2017-18

16.3% (M.R.)

14.5% (S.A.)

9.80% (M.R.)

8.97% (S.A.)

69.4% (M.R.)

73.9% (S.A.)

56.8% (M.R.)

54.9% (S.A.)

29.9 (M.R.)

29.9 (S.A.)

47% (M.R.)

33% (S.A.)

2016-17

15.0% (M.R.)

11.2% (S.A.)

8.08% (M.R.)

7.21% (S.A.)

56.7% (M.R.)

70.0% (S.A.)

50.3% (M.R.)

53.6% (S.A.)

24.6 (M.R.)

25.2 (S.A.)

44% (M.R.)

52% (S.A.)


Make no mistake – Rantanen’s team shooting percentage is unsustainable; however, his IPP, while perhaps a bit too high, is keeping with his trend of it rising with each passing season. Although Rantanen hasn’t made a name for himself as a goal scorer, his personal shooting percentage is especially high for someone whose average shooting distance is nearly 35 feet, making it – along with his SOG rate – less likely he’ll morph into a goal scorer over the course of this season and perhaps down the road. As a whole, I’d say his data is in keeping with the picture of a player whose current spot atop the league’s scorers isn’t sustainable, but for whom better production than last season can reasonably be expected.

Turning to Aho, he too has a high IPP this season; but in his case it’s less far above what it had been last season and is also continuing an upward trend. Thus, it could stay this high or perhaps drop only slightly. It’s also likely Aho will see more goals as the season unfolds, since his personal shooting percentage is down despite his average shooting distance being lower. His team shooting percentage also has risen each season, but thus far is likely at least somewhat unsustainably high. Between that and his also high percentage of secondary assists, he too should see his scoring rate slip from where it is now.

Who Wins?

In terms of raw talent, I believe these players are more comparable than not. But opportunity trumps talent in fantasy hockey, making Rantanen the winner of this match.

Is Rantanen’s NHL scoring lead sustainable? Unlikely – not with his very high team shooting percentage to go along with his low (for a winger) SOG rate and the historical data which very clearly shows the nexus between high scoring wingers and firing lots of pucks on net. But Rantanen’s PP prowess is indeed for real and what ends up winning him the match. After all, if things unfold for the rest of the season (and in future seasons) on the PP the way they have this season and last, Rantanen should best Aho by at least five man advantage points each season. Add to that the benefit of Rantanen having a world class center on his line, whereas Aho is clearly his team’s best player, and – not to take anything away from Aho – Rantanen is the winner of this battle.

Even still, I’d peg Aho as an 80-85 point player for this season and the next several, with a shot at 90 points if he’s surrounded by more talent and continues to gets better PP deployment. Rantanen, on the other hand, should be able to sleepwalk to 90 points with a realistic chance at more. If you own either player in your keeper league, I’d only sell to fill a big hole at another position and if you’re also getting back as close to guaranteed value as possible. In one-year leagues, it’s best to hold since although both will likely see their scoring pace slow from where it is now, they’re still key pieces to any team seeking to win its league.