A week after a partially successful first visit to the home rink for the Colorado Avalanche’s top farm team, Sampo Ranta decided to make that ice sheet his workplace, for a paycheck.
Late Saturday, Ranta elected to forgo his final season of college hockey and agreed upon a three-year entry-level contract with the Avalanche, who had selected him in the third round of the 2018 NHL Draft.
He is expected to start with the Colorado Eagles, who are the AHL affiliate of the Avalanche. The Eagles play their home games at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland, Colo., where Ranta played his final games as a Minnesota Gopher last weekend in the NCAA regional tournament.
He had a goal and an assist in the Gophers’ 7-2 win over Omaha to open the tournament, before they were blanked 4-0 by Minnesota State Mankato to end their season.
Back in his native Finland at this time a year ago due to the pandemic, Ranta considered making the jump to pro hockey then, but said he would give college another season in hopes of being more NHL-ready when he made the jump. Twelve months later, he felt the time was right to try and crack the Avalanche roster.
“I like my chances. I feel like with my skill set, my speed and my body, I don’t think the pro game is going to be too difficult for me,” Ranta said on Sunday afternoon, after arriving in Colorado. “I think the adjustment is going to be pretty easy, just getting used to systems and getting used to the game. I feel like I’ll be fine. Hopefully I’ll get a shot here pretty soon.”
Ranta spent the summer of 2020 working out in Europe and returned for his best season at the college level. He led the Gophers offensively with 31 points in 31 games — 19 goals and a dozen assists — and was named to the All-Big Ten first team and to the conference’s all tournament team.
“I had a good year, and from a development standpoint I felt like this was the next move I had to take,” he said. “My goal has always been to be an NHL player and I felt like like this is the right time.”
A goal scorer with size, Ranta was originally committed to Wisconsin, but switched directions late in the summer of 2018 and came to play for Bob Motzko’s first Gopher team instead, becoming the second Finn (after Erik Haula) to skate for the U of M. He made an immediate impact, scoring the team’s only goal in a 1-1 tie at Minnesota Duluth in Ranta’s college debut.
Ranta, who turns 21 at the end of May, was second on the team in goals as a sophomore with a dozen, despite missing two games while playing for his country at the 2020 World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic. He said he will miss the teammates and the fans in Minnesota, even when playing for one of the Minnesota Wild’s top rivals.
“All the guys, the school, the fans, the feeling when you’re playing at the U, you play in the State of Hockey. It means a lot,” Ranta said. “It has been an honor to wear the ‘M’ the last three years, and some of the best times of my life. Now I’m the enemy, but hopefully I can score a couple goals against the Wild here.”
For the Gophers, the pro signings by Ranta and Scott Reedy in the past few days have been tempered by the announced return of Jack LaFontaine, who was the Big Ten’s top goalie last season. Gophers coach Bob Motzko will fill the offensive hole with freshmen, with goal-scorers like Aaron Huglen, Tristan Broz, Chaz Lucius and Matthew Knies set to join the program for the 2021-22 season.
The Eagles’ next game is Tuesday, April 6, versus the Texas Stars in Loveland. Ranta does not need to sit out a quarantine period and could make his pro debut as early as then.