Predators Need Tolvanen While Arvidsson Is Out

Last week, on Nov. 15, the Nashville Predators announced that Viktor Arvidsson had suffered a broken thumb and was expected to miss six-to-eight weeks. This occurred after he was placed on injured reserve on Nov. 12 with what the team described as an “upper-body injury.”

The injury happened in a Nov. 11 game against the Dallas Stars in his first game back from a lower-body injury that cost him three games. This injury, which is expected to keep him out of the lineup until 2019, will force head coach Peter Laviolette’s hand as the team looks to to replace Arvidsson, who had been on a roll to start the season.

Predators Lose Key Piece of Top Line

In losing Arvidsson for an extended period of time, the Predators are going to miss one of their top forwards who, along with Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen, create one of the best lines in hockey. So far in 2018-19, Arvidsson has appeared in 13 games and has eight goals and 13 points, all at even strength, while averaging a career-high 18:13 of ice time.

His increased ice time, plus his linemates, have led to an offensive explosion, especially at five-on-five, where he is currently riding career highs in goals, assists, and points, all per-60 minutes. He also paces the team in goals and points-per-60. This production has occurred despite having his lowest five-on-five shots-per-60 rate since 2014-15 while shooting a career-high 23.5 percent in all situations.

However, despite his shot rate regressing, his ability to generate offense has increased with his number of five-on-five individual scoring chances, high danger chances, and rebounds created per-60 all at career highs. He’s also been safe with the puck with a plus-five turnover margin in all situations and has averaged one takeaway per game. Add to that the fact that he’s drawn one more penalty than he’s taken and his absence will be felt by the team.

Viktor Arvidsson Predators
Viktor Arvidsson was on pace to set new career highs in goals and points before his injury. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Due to Arvidsson’s importance, how the Predators replace him could play a key role in the team’s success this season. Luckily for them, they have internal options, at both the NHL and AHL levels, who can help reduce the impact of the loss. There’s also the chance that GM David Poile looks to address the hole through trade, something he’s never shied away from.

Although Poile has never been slow to pull the trigger on trade opportunities, it should be understood that filling the void created by Arvidsson’s injury will ideally be addressed through options either already on the NHL roster or in the AHL.

NHL Options to Replace Arvidsson

In the four games since Arvidsson went down with injury, Laviolette has used Colton Sissons, Kevin Fiala, and Craig Smith on the top line with Forsberg and Johansen. While all three have traits that can help stem the tide during Arvidsson’s absence, none of them are capable of fully replacing him. Plus, considering the team has gone 1-2-1 with him out and only scored one goal in two of the games, the team needs help and all options should be considered.

Matching the Top Line’s Chemistry

The Arvidsson, Forsberg, Johansen line has been Nashville’s most used line the past two seasons and has great chemistry. In over 500 five-on-five minutes last season, the Predators controlled over 50 percent of shots, goals, and scoring chances and just under 50 percent of high danger chances with the line deployed. This season, in 143 five-on-five minutes, the trio has helped the team control over 53 percent of all areas. This includes controlling 66.7 percent of high danger chances and 63.2 percent of goals.

Nashville Predators forward Ryan Johansen
The Predators’ top line centered by Ryan Johansen is Nashville’s most used line and one of the league’s best. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

But when Arvidsson isn’t on the line, it’s a different story. In the 99 five-on-five minutes that Forsberg and Johansen played with someone else last season, the Predators’ metrics regressed in control of shots, goals, and scoring chances. This season, in 98 five-on-five minutes without Arvidsson, the line has regressed in control of goals, scoring chances, and high danger chances, including a 20 percent drop in the last category.

When one of Fiala, Sissons, and Smith have played on the top line, there have been mixed results. Fiala has played on the line for 38 minutes and the team’s control of scoring chances and high danger chances have dropped. When Sissons got the opportunity, there was a regression in all four areas in 31 minutes. Finally, 17 minutes with Smith on the wing, the Predators have increased their metrics in all but control of high danger chances.

Sifting Through the Options

In addition to Fiala, Sissons, and Smith, the Predators have several options already at the NHL level who can potentially fill in for Arvidsson. One of these is Ryan Hartman, whom the Predators acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks at last year’s trade deadline, after which he struggled with his new team. This season, however, he has bounced back with career highs in five-on-five goals-per-60. Yet even with his emergence in his first full season with the team, he remains a middle-six forward as he’s generally been throughout his career.

Ryan Hartman Predators
Ryan Hartman has bounced back this season, his first full one as a Predator, and is an outside candidate to replace Arvidsson on the top line. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

Next up is Calle Jarnkrok fresh off his hat trick against the Los Angeles Kings on Nov. 17. A natural center, he has played much of this season on the wing and can play in all situations. At the time of writing this, his .87 goals-per-60 (G/60) at five-on-five matches the career high he set last season, although that’s largely due to him shooting a team-high 28.6 percent this season. Jarnkrok’s dynamic shot that was on display against the Kings is good enough to receive sporadic playing time on the top line, but a lack of consistency (already two four-game pointless streaks in 2018-19) and high-end talent means he’s not an ideal replacement.

At 22 years old, Fiala has the highest upside of any replacement for Arvidsson on the NHL roster. With 23 goals and 48 points in 80 games last year, he had his breakout campaign in his sophomore season. This season, however, he’s accumulated just two goals and nine points in 20 games, meaning his goals-per-game average is a third of last season’s and his points-per-game rate has dropped by .15. The biggest reason is that he simply isn’t generating offense at his 2017-18 levels. Is he still a top-six forward with the upside to potentially develop into a top line player? Yes, but right now isn’t the time to move him to the first line.

That leaves Smith who, in his age-28 season last year, scored a career-high 25 goals and reached 50 points for the second time. At this point in his career he is unlikely to replicate that production considering nine of his goals were scored on the power play. So even though his five-on-five goals-per-60 are up relative to last season, he has just one power play goal, a representation of the team’s struggles on the man advantage, causing him to be behind his scoring pace from last season.

Craig Smith Predators
Veteran Craig Smith started on the top line in the team’s last game and appears to have the inside track to play in place of Arvidsson. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It appears as though Laviolette is going with Smith on the top line, at least for the time being. He has the speed to skate with Forsberg and Johansen but it remains to be seen whether or not he has the skillset to capitalize on the scoring chances generated by his linemates. With that wrapping up the internal options at the NHL level, let’s see what the club has at the AHL level with the Milwaukee Admirals.

Options in Milwaukee

Luckily for the Predators, the front office has done a nice job drafting in recent years despite often selecting in the latter portion of each round. Unfortunately for them, the majority of their prospects with high upside are either on the blue line or still in juniors, college, or Europe. That being said, they still have some interesting forward talent at the AHL level, most notably top prospect Eeli Tolvanen.

Will Arvidsson’s Injury Force a Tolvanen Call-Up?

Pretty much every Predators fan knows who Tolvanen is, but in case you’re unfamiliar with him, here’s a quick recap. The team took him with the 30th overall pick of the 2017 Draft after he fell to them. He played his junior hockey in the USHL after coming over from his native Finland. Following the draft, he spent last season with Jokerit in the KHL and set the league’s scoring record for a player under the age of 20 with 36 points in 49 games.

Eeli Tolvanen
Eeli Tolvanen (center) is Nashville’s best prospect and, with elite offensive upside, now may be the best time to call him up. (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

His season also included dynamic performances at the World Junior Championships, the World Championships, and the Olympics and he looked ready to be in the NHL despite being just 18 at the time. After his KHL season ended, he came to North America and appeared in three regular season games with the Predators, but went pointless.

This season, despite showing obvious talent, he was sent to the AHL before the season began in a move questioned by many and has remained there since. While the team’s decision to start Tolvanen in the AHL caught many off guard, Laviolette defended it.

“If he’s not going to get the opportunity here to play, there’s no sense having him around as an extra forward. He has to play. This is the best way to get him acclimated.” Laviolette on the team’s decision to send Tolvanen to the AHL (from ‘Predators Hoping Eeli Tolvanen Chooses to Stay in AHL,’ Tennessean – 9/27/18)

He currently has four goals and 11 points in 19 games with the Admirals in his first professional season in North America. So while he’s not exactly lighting the league on fire, he has been productive at a young age and is skilled enough to possibly force his way onto the NHL roster this season. But with Arvidsson’s injury, perhaps he doesn’t need to force his way.

With a top-six role opened up due to Arvidsson’s absence, now is the perfect time to call up Tolvanen and give him a lengthy look in the NHL. His lethal shot is his best weapon and he loves to shoot as he averaged better than 4.7 shots-per-game (S/G) in his last USHL season, over 3.5 S/G in the KHL last season, and is currently averaging 2.3 S/G in the AHL. There’s no question what he intends to do with the puck on his stick: shoot and score. And that’s a trait that would complement Forsberg and Johansen, two gifted playmakers.

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Now’s the time to give Tolvanen a legitimate shot in the NHL, by placing him on a line with talented linemates. It’s a low-risk, high-reward move that could help the Predators replace Arvidsson’s production and also give them the additional scoring depth that all teams look for. Plus, if he doesn’t work out, they simply send him back to the AHL. But just because Tolvanen is the best option to replace Arvidsson doesn’t mean he’s the only option in Milwaukee.

Other AHL Options

If for some reason the Predators don’t call up Tolvanen, either due to age or because they want him to get more seasoning, they do have additional options in the AHL. One is 21-year-old Anthony Richard who, in his third full AHL season, is the Admirals’ leading scorer among forwards with eight goals and 12 points, including 11 primary points, in 17 games. That’s a pace well ahead of the 36 points in 75 games he had last season as he’s increased his AHL scoring rate every season. Recognized for his speed and quality hands, the former fourth round QMJHL product is viewed as a potential steal despite his 5-foot-9 frame, the same height Arvidsson is listed at.

Related: Growing Fangs: Introducing Tolvanen, Fabbro, and Others

An interesting potential replacement for Arvidsson is Russian Yakov Trenin, the Predators’ 2015 second round pick. He is interesting because he chose to play his junior hockey in North America with the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL rather than stay in Russia and thrive with an MHL or KHL club. His first full AHL season was last season and he struggled a bit with five goals and 16 points in 44 games.

Yakov Trenin
Yakov Trenin, shown here with the Gatineau Olympiques, is an interesting prospect with a high skill level and the potential to produce in the NHL. (Claire Ratté – Olympiques de Gatineau)

This season, however, he’s off to a better start with three goals and seven points in 19 games. Like many Russian prospects, Trenin thrives offensively but needs to work on the defensive side of the game. Luckily, if he were called up, Forsberg and Johansen are solid two-way players who can pick up a linemate’s shortcomings.

Does Acquiring William Nylander Make Sense?

If there’s one thing Poile loves to do, it’s make trades. Many of the team’s best players were acquired via trade, including Kyle Turris, P.K. Subban, Forsberg, and Johansen, so it wouldn’t be surprising for him to address Arvidsson’s absence by acquiring someone. The most popular player in current trade rumors, William Nylander, is an interesting possibility for the Predators given his top-six abilities. He’s also Swedish and there are already four Swedes on the NHL roster so there’s familiarity.

Add to that the fact that he’s a natural center, giving the team flexibility, and he’d be a great fit. However, just because there’s a fit doesn’t mean there’s a straightforward deal to be made. If the Toronto Maple Leafs move Nylander ahead of the Dec. 1 deadline to sign him, it appears that their ideal scenario would be landing an NHL-ready defenseman or forward to replace him. That’s where a potential Nylander-to-Nashville trade gets interesting. The Predators’ top-four is set in stone and I doubt Poile has interest in parting with one of them with Dante Fabbro at Boston University through at least the remainder of the season.

William Nylander Maple Leafs
With the deadline to sign William Nylander getting closer each day, are the Predators a realistic landing spot for the Swedish forward? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

So if the Maple Leafs’ strongest desire is to land a defenseman who can immediately step into their lineup, there’s no trade to be made. But if they are interested in a top defense prospect and an NHL-ready top-six forward, the two teams can be trade partners. The Predators have an abundance of young, talented forwards with Fiala being the best candidate. On top of Fiala it would also likely take Fabbro and/or David Farrance from the college ranks, plus a draft pick to get the deal done.

Would it be worth it? Not sure given Fabbro’s upside, but if the Predators were guaranteed to sign Nylander to a long-term deal, it’d be a good move for both teams. The Maple Leafs would get another young defense prospect to anchor the team in the future, assuming Fabbro were to sign with them, plus Fiala, who becomes an RFA after this season but will be cheaper to sign than Nylander. Meanwhile, the Predators would get a excellent forward who would fill out the team’s top-six and would be likely to sign for a lower cap hit than he would in Toronto given the lack of income tax in Tennessee.

Regardless of what happens, Predators fans have comfort and confidence that Poile will make the proper move(s) to benefit the team, both in Arvidsson’s absence and afterwards in their effort to win a Stanley Cup. Ideally, the situation is addressed internally and the team doesn’t lose key assets, which is why calling up Tolvanen makes the most sense. But if the situation calls for it, Poile will make a move as he’s done in the past and acquiring a player of Nylander’s caliber would help the Predators now and in the future.

*All stats came from Elite Prospects, the AHL, and Prospect-Stats