Building off a breakthrough: Mikko Rantanen

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

After being one of the worst teams of the modern era during the 2016-17 season, the Colorado Avalanche stormed back this past season with a 43-point improvement that took them from the league’s basement back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2014-15 and just the second time since 2010. A lot of things had to go right for that to happen, including improved goaltending and an MVP-level performance from Nathan MacKinnon.

Another key factor: the development and breakout season from 2015 first-round pick Mikko Rantanen.

[Avalanche Day: Looking back at 2017-18]

After a promising debut season that saw him score 20 goals and 38 points, Rantanen took his game to another level in 2017-18 and broke out with a season that pushed him into the top-20 in the league in scoring with 84 total points. He was dynamite all year, and alongside MacKinnon helped form one of the best top-line duos in the league.

When they were on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Avalanche outscored teams by a 55-41 margin and held a 51 percent share of the total shot attempts. When neither player was on the ice the Avalanche were outscored 84-90 and held only a 46 percent share of the total shot attempts. The difference was even more drastic the previous season when the Avalanche were only outscored 34-39 with the MacKinnon-Rantanen duo on the ice and 53-114 without them.

As a duo, they clearly click on the ice and should be the driving force behind the team’s offense.

Individually, Rantanen has been an exciting talent and prospect ever since he joined the Avalanche organization and, to this point, has lived up to the hype and seems to be on his way to becoming a star in the league and cornerstone building block.

Just consider that as of this posting he has still not celebrated his 22nd birthday yet and is coming off of an 84-point season, an exceptionally rare accomplishment in the modern NHL. Over the past 25 years there have only been 14 different players to record at least 84 points in a season before their 22nd birthday, and it is a list full of superstars. The list: Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Evgeni Malkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Paul Kariya, Patrick Kane, Ilya Kovalchuk, Eric Lindros, Eric Staal, Steven Stamkos, Jaromir Jagr, Alex Ovechkin, Mathew Barzal, and Rantanen. Obviously an encouraging sign to be on that list.

If history is any indicator, players that perform the way Rantanen did this past season at that young of an age go on to big things in the seasons that followed.

You need multiple top-line players to win in the NHL, and with MacKinnon and Rantanen the Avalanche look to have two of them.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.