Mikko Rantanen has leveled up, and he is firing on all cupcakes

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SAN JOSE -- Mikko Rantanen roamed the grounds of Scott McNealy's $100 million mansion in Palo Alto, California, on the Friday of NHL All-Star Weekend. He saw the indoor gymnasium adjacent to the den, complete with a rock climbing wall. He saw the three-hole golf course on the lawn near the visitors' entrance. He saw the on-site hockey rink housed a few hundred feet from the majestic outdoor patio -- the rink McNealy used to have covered with a temperature-controlling dome until neighbors located a mountain away complained about the sun glare.

The Colorado Avalanche right winger was at this mansion, owned by a massive hockey fan who is the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, as a part of EA Sports' streaming event built around the All-Star Game in San Jose.

"The 'Chel House' or something like that," Rantanen said

Well, it's "House of Chel," named after the company's NHL video game series. But close enough.

A collection of esports personalities and Twitch streamers with names such as "GlitterXplosion" stayed in the mansion, MTV's "Real World"-style, along with J.T. Brown of the Minnesota Wild. There was hockey, both virtual and on that private rink, and there were hijinks. Rantanen was at the house for the latter.

His visit started with a skit involving Jeremy Roenick of NBC Sports, in which it appeared that the former NHL star was dominating at a video game when it was actually Rantanen playing the whole time. Next he went outdoors, where one of the producers handed Rantanen a T-shirt cannon. While others had fired objects from the roof of the house, Rantanen stood a few feet away from a goal cage set up in the backyard and manned by Brown in a pristine painter's jumpsuit.

After a practice shot with a bean bag, Rantanen was given his cannon fodder: cupcakes with vivid frosting, stuffed into the barrel.

He raised the cannon at Brown and took his stance as the cameras rolled. "Say hello to my little friend!" Rantanen bellowed as a burst of multicolored confection sprayed at Brown and around McNealy's grounds.

Rantanen walked over to Brown. "You're not going to be mad at me, 'Cupcake,' right?" he said.

"I'll let this go ... if you promise never to call me 'Cupcake' again," Brown said.

And, scene.

Two years ago, Rantanen was a 38-point rookie forward who didn't receive a vote for the Calder Trophy. Today, he's a 74-points-in-52-games forward getting Hart Trophy consideration ... while being invited to do improv with Jeremy Roenick and shoot a cupcake cannon in a billionaire's backyard.

That's how quickly things have changed for the 22-year-old from Nousiainen, Finland.

"It's a big privilege to play in the NHL. It's always been a dream to be there," he said. "And playing on the line that I'm playing on, it's been great."

The line of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog is considered by some to be the best in the NHL. The past three seasons, no line has played as many minutes together at 5-on-5 as the Colorado trio (around 1,435). No line has produced more goals (96) or has a better goal differential (plus-31).

Although they were briefly broken up after the All-Star Game -- an event to which all three Avalanche players were selected -- they were quickly reunited by coach Jared Bednar in an attempt to curb a losing streak.

"We tried them together. We've tried them apart. They've been successful in the past, might as well give them the chance," he said in an understatement.

The Avalanche will lean on Rantanen, MacKinnon and Landeskog as they try to separate themselves from the "World War Z" zombie pile that is the Western Conference wild-card race, in which the last seed in the playoff picture is separated from the last-place team in the conference by a mere six points. Last season, the trio's play carried the Avs to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Can they do it again?

"We're pretty positive. We're not in the same position as we were at the start, but we're really positive," MacKinnon said.

That the line has been kept together this long is a tribute to its effectiveness, according to Rantanen. "It takes consistency. That's the biggest thing," he told ESPN recently. "If you want to be a great player in this league, that's what you need. And every player on that line helps each other to be a better player. It's a hard league to play in, but that makes it easy."

As with any great line, there's always debate about who drives the play. Last season, MacKinnon received the most attention, manifesting in his Hart Trophy nomination and second-place finish to Taylor Hall of the Devils in the voting. This season, Rantanen is getting more attention after a hot start -- 43 points in his first 26 games -- rocketed him up the scoring leaderboard. Through 52 games, he has 74 points, two more than MacKinnon's total.

MacKinnon said this is the player Rantanen has tracked to become since the Avalanche took him 10th overall in the 2015 draft.

"He actually had a good rookie season, just on a really bad team," the Avalanche center said. "But last year he just took off. He has so many tools that other guys don't have. He's 6-[foot]-4 and can move like a little guy. It's the best league in the world, and he's still really special in it."

The question then becomes just how special he is and how much that's worth. It's the question of the summer for the Colorado Avalanche.

Rantanen is part of this incredible class of young stars coming off rookie contracts and hitting restricted free agency this summer. Of the names potentially available -- including Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, Matthew Tkachuk and William Karlsson -- none comes close to the 158 points Rantanen has amassed the past two seasons. From a points-per-game perspective, his 1.19 ties that of Taylor Hall and Johnny Gaudreau and eclipses the average of Auston Matthews (1.09), who just received a contract with an average annual value of 14.6 percent of the current salary cap.

In summary: Mikko's getting paid.

Colorado GM Joe Sakic said before the season that the Finnish standout "is going to be here a long time," but Rantanen's representatives wanted to "see how the season played out."

This plan by his reps, it would seem, was a good one, considering where their client ranks among the NHL's points leaders.

"You know where everyone is. But it's still too early to check that," Rantanen said of his point totals. "There's a lot of good players in the league. Scoring has gone up. We'll see what the stats are in Game 78. Then maybe I'll check it out."

He might have avoided thinking about his numbers on the ice, but Rantanen admits that he has thought about his numbers off the ice -- specifically, those on his next contract.

"Obviously, you can't deny you think about the contract year. You try not to think about it too much. It's next summer. We're going to play now, do my best to get my team into the playoffs. There's not too much time for talks right now," he said.

If nothing else, the Avalanche might have time on their side. Landeskog is 26 and signed through 2021. MacKinnon is 23 and signed through 2023. The Avs have a blue-chip defensive prospect in Cale Makar on the way and are the proud owners of the Ottawa Senators' first-round pick in June, which, with its promising lottery odds, could net the Avalanche an elite forward prospect such as American phenom Jack Hughes or Rantanen's countryman Kaapo Kakko.

As for Rantanen, he's wondering what the next level for his play looks like.

"It's hard to say," he said. "I'm 22 years old. I still have some things I can be better at. My skating. It's been better the last few years, but there's still some things I can work on to be more explosive. Be a better player than that."

There's always room for improvement for a burgeoning NHL star such as Mikko Rantanen.

Except when it comes to wielding a cupcake cannon. He might have already peaked there.