Predators: What’s the Deal With Eeli Tolvanen?

Ah, Eeli Tolvanen. The prospect with so much hype that Nashville Predators’ fans thought they had drafted one of the league’s next great goal scorers. However, after waiting multiple seasons to see his highly anticipated skillset in a Predators’ uniform fulltime, many have let go of the same excitement they once held for the young phenom who took the KHL by storm with Jokerit.

But, is it fair to give up on Tolvanen? It’s understandable to be disappointed. The 21-year-old was selected in the first round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft and he’s been seen in a Nashville uniform a total of seven times since then. However, the most important part to remember is the fact that he’s only 21 years old.

Fan excitement, hype or patience surrounding Tolvanen may have been affected or diminished by the emergence of Philip Tomasino. The Predators’ first-round pick from last year’s draft has recorded monster numbers in the Ontario Hockey League for the Niagara IceDogs and the Oshawa Generals, to whom he was traded to midseason.

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A 100-point season – fourth-best in the OHL – for Tomasino has understandably bumped Tolvanen from the top of the Predators’ prospect buzz. Hitting the century mark for points is no small feat, especially when it’s achieved in just 62 games and in one of the top junior leagues in the world. But just because we’re still waiting for Tolvanen to show glimpses of living up to the hype, it doesn’t mean you should give up on him quite yet.

There should be a disclaimer right here, so fans don’t get the wrong idea. This isn’t saying Tolvanen will eventually enter the lineup and become the franchise’s first 40-goal scorer – although it’s not impossible. But rather arguing that the young Finn could still become a contributor for the Predators, even if it isn’t quite on the scale that everybody thought it would be after Jokerit allowed him to leave for Nashville.

Eeli Tolvanen, Nashville Predators
Nashville Predators forward Eeli Tolvanen is congratulated after scoring a goal against the Chicago Blackhawks(AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

It was somewhat expected that Tolvanen’s transition from the KHL to NHL wouldn’t be immediately seamless. Obviously, the European style of play is affected by the larger ice surface. It was always thought that there would be an adjustment period for the former first-round pick, which would be handled in Milwaukee while playing for the Admirals. Although it may be taking longer than first anticipated, Tolvanen is improving.

Defense Optional?

One of the issues that needed to be addressed was young forward’s defensive play. There’s never been any doubt whether Tolvanen has a scoring touch, but there has been concern when playing in his own end of the ice.

In his first season in Milwaukee, which was Tolvanen’s first full professional season in North America, he was a minus-eight through 58 games. Despite being the fifth-highest Admirals scorer in 2018-19, Tolvanen was the sixth-worst player when it came to plus/minus.

However, 2019-20 was different for the young forward. Tolvanen finished the season a plus-two, which obviously at first glance is not even close to impressive. But focus on the improvement from the Admirals’ youngest player. He’s shown that he’s coachable when it comes to his defensive game. If he can continue to make significant improvement season after season, Tolvanen’s defensive game, or lack thereof, could just be a minor bump in the road during the prospect’s development.

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The former first-round pick’s sophomore season should not come as any surprise based on how he played in the 2019 NHL Prospects Showcase. Admirals head coach, Karl Taylor, served as the Predators’ bench boss during the annual rookie tournament and praised Tolvanen’s defensive game.

“I liked how physical he was in the game,” Taylor said of the then 20-year-old to the Predators official website. “He probably had five or six big body checks in moments when he had to make a play to clear a puck or be physical. He didn’t try to take the easy road. He played hard on it, and he produced and had some scoring chances for us as well, so those things are exciting. That’s what he’s supposed to do.”

Natural Goal Scorer

For those who haven’t kept up with the young prospect’s career, don’t worry, the offensive skillset that surely inspired general manager David Poile to select him certainly hasn’t left.

Eeli Tolvanen, Nashville Predators
NASHVILLE, TN – JUNE 30: Nashville Predators 2017 first round draft pick Eeli Tolvanen (68) is shown during the 2017 Nashville Predators Future Stars game. (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In his rookie season with the Predators’ farm team, Tolvanen finished with the team’s fourth-highest goal total (15) and, as previously mentioned, was fifth in points (35), despite playing fewer games than the vast majority of the team.

Tolvanen was the Predators’ leading scorer in the Prospects Showcase, registering four goals and one assist during the three-game tournament, while playing against some of the league’s brightest, future stars. When the Admirals’ 2019-20 season kicked off, Tolvanen picked up where his preseason left off.

The 5-foot-10 forward beat his previous year’s goal total, finishing with 21, the team’s second most, behind only Daniel Carr and once again finished fifth in points.

In the two seasons he has been in Milwaukee, Tolvanen has proven to be a top-five offensive player, while also being the youngest. The year-on-year development may be why Poile hasn’t traded him, despite being the subject of trade rumors as late as this season.

Tolvanen may be a victim of his own success. Breaking the KHL’s record for most points by a player under 20 years old gave him a phenom-type label. It may have also set an expectation to unrealistic to achieve immediately.

To truly judge Tolvanen’s development speed, it’s important to examine the rest of the 2017 first-round draft class. 35 percent of the players taken in the first round that year have played 10 NHL games or less. While 26 percent have played in 100 games or more, but out of the eight players who have surpassed the century mark, five were top-10 picks.

Related: Nashville Predators: 5 Potential First-Round Targets

Tolvanen had a lot of hype from the moment he was drafted, but he’s far from unique in terms of his development speed. What also cannot be ignored is the system in which he is playing in. The Predators have not rushed him through simply because of the fans’ and media’s expectations and demands.

Eeli Tolvanen Team Finland 2016
Eeli Tolvanen #33 of Team Finland skates the puck against Serge Weber #10 of Team Switzerland during the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship preliminary round game at the Bell Centre on December 31, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

The Finnish forward is the only Predators’ prospect from the 2017 draft who has even seen action in the big league. It isn’t because the Predators had a bad draft. In fact, that year they selected Grant Mismash and David Farrance, both of whom are quite highly touted and coming off their third year in the NCAA. Tolvanen is younger than Mismash and just two months older than Farrance.

So, before criticizing how long it’s taking Tolvanen to make an impact in the NHL, let’s remember where the other members of the Predators’ 2017 draft class are. The flashes of brilliance witnessed overseas may be seen in the NHL someday, but let’s be patient.