Up until late in the 2020 offseason, a bit of a youth movement was expected for the Nashville Predators in the 2020-21 season. There were holes on the roster to be filled, and the perception around the team was that there were plenty of players in the system that would be ready to battle it out for an NHL role. However, we all know that general manager David Poile pivoted to the free agency bargain bin, signing Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula on the same December day. This meant that there weren’t open slots on the roster anymore, and the only rookie reinforcements seen this season were when injuries finally hit hard.
Those rookies didn’t just take what they were given and accept it, though. They played hard, and were part of the spark that turned the Predators’ season around in a late push for the last playoff spot in the Discover Central Division; a race they won in the last days of the regular season. The team had four rookies (Calder Trophy eligible players) see playoff action, and for them it is an invaluable experience moving into next season where they will still be battling for a full-time spot.
Rookies that see playoff action are often the ones thought highly enough of by the team that they are given the responsibility of playing on the big stage. In Montreal, we saw the youth sitting in the early games in favour of experience, but as soon as they were injected into the lineup, the team started winning. The Predators have a few examples of this themselves. Those rookies who thrive under the pressure of the playoffs find that they are in the league for good after that point. The ones that struggle a little need to take those experiences and ensure that they come back the next season with a playoff-level intensity.
Eeli Tolvanen Goes Scoreless
Eeli Tolvanen didn’t take long this season to impose himself as one of the Predators’ biggest power-play threats this season with 12 power-play points in 40 games. His healthy scratch in the playoffs then raised eyebrows, as a successful postseason power play causes an even greater divide between the top and bottom teams. For the Predators to have a chance in the series against the Carolina Hurricanes, they were going to need all the firepower they could get.
For Tolvanen to then put up zero points in four games showed that there is still a learning curve for the young winger, and that will need to be sorted out. That being said, acclimatizing himself to the playoff pace and running into a hot goalie can happen to anyone, let alone a rookie. His 11 shots, eight hits, and three blocks show that he was engaged in the play, and that he was one or two lucky bounces away from the numbers looking very different.
Next season, Tolvanen likely needs to be sheltered with plenty of offensive zone starts, as his possession numbers have left something to be desired. That should be relatively straightforward, though, as the Predators don’t have many players in need of being sheltered, unless they also debut their top forward prospect, Philip Tomasino. Running out a second line of Tolvanen, Tomasino, and Luke Kunin would be a great offensive combo, and they could be fed all the offensive zone starts they can handle. However it shakes out, though, Tolvanen needs to take his playoff experience and use it to continue to grow his game.
The Herd Line Rookies
Seeing Tanner Jeannot and Mathieu Olivier spark a fourth-line renaissance of the hard-working style the Predators brought into the league when they joined all the way back in 1998 was something long-time fans truly appreciated. Early in the season, the team was getting outworked, and as soon as they were scored on, it seemed they had already decided they had lost the game. That attitude changed with the emergence of some hard workers in the bottom-six group.
Chief among them were the rookies Tanner Jeannot and Mathieu Olivier. Olivier only saw two games in the postseason, but Jeannot made his impact felt in five of the six games, dishing out 16 hits and adding an assist to boot. Olivier’s underlying numbers show that he struggled a little in the transition game, but Jeannot was actually Nashville’s most effective bottom-line forward despite the limited minutes. Watching the games, though, both players were very visibly involved every time they were on the ice.
Getting a feel for the grind of the playoffs can be really important for a checking forward, because that is the type of energy they will have to bring next season on the nights where the rest of the team doesn’t come out of the gate with the same kind of jump. The regular season is more of a slow grind, though, so for these two players, finding the competitive balance will be key to their success next season and in the long-term.
Alexandre Carrier Finally Makes the Jump
After being drafted in the fourth round all the way back in 2015 on the heels of a standout offensive season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), he won the attention of fans and the team brass with a final excellent QMJHL season the next year, before moving on to the American Hockey League (AHL) and adapting seamlessly to the professional ranks. He put up 39 points in 72 games during his rookie season at the AHL level in 2016-17, and that even earned him a two-game cup of coffee at the NHL level. Being a full-time NHLer was the easy next step.
However, that next step didn’t come right away. Carrier took on more responsibility at the AHL level, and that took some time to adjust to. His next sniff of NHL time didn’t come until 2019-20 when he played three games. Finally, when injuries struck this year, he stepped up, notching his first NHL goal, his first NHL points, and playing at the level of a full-time NHLer. His play in 19 regular-season games made him an easy call to be a part of the postseason lineup, where he continued to thrive while playing heavy minutes on the team’s top pair alongside Roman Josi.
Space in the Lineup
The Predators are likely to lose a forward via the expansion draft and possibly a few more via free agency. That means that, even without any injuries, there will be full-time lineup spots available for the above-mentioned rookie forwards. Tolvanen needs to be given a slot in the top-six and on the top power-play unit, and both Jeannot and Olivier should be depth players for the Predators moving forward. All three will be key parts in any success that the team sees next season, with Tolvanen being a key to fixing a flailing power play, and the other two as part of one of the most effective energy lines in the league.
Barring any changes on defence, the Predators will enter into next season with seven defencemen signed plus Dante Fabbro as a restricted free agent. It won’t be easy for Carrier to keep his spot in the lineup with that kind of competition. However, the way he handled himself in the playoffs, and how much coach John Hynes relied on him in every situation, shows that he should have a step up on the competition entering next year. All in all, the rookies should be making a greater impact on the lineup next season, and that is going to be a very positive thing for the Predators.