Next week Christmas comes a day late, as the annual World Juniors Championship kicks off on December 26th.
Of all the teams in the tournament, Finland sits in the odd situation of having shot themselves in the foot through overachieving the development of their players. NHL players are ineligible for the tournament, meaning they will be without Jesperi Kotkaniemi (C, Montreal Canadiens), Henri Jokiharju (D, Chicago Blackhawks), and Miro Heiskanen (D, Dallas Stars). All three players are established their respective clubs, with Heiskanen becoming a mainstay on the Dallas defensive corps. Meanwhile, former head coach Jukka Rautakorpi more than deserved his firing in 2017, but his replacement Jussi Ahokas led Finland to a disappointing 6th place last season.
Finland is in a precarious position this upcoming tournament: not returning many players from last year, no established coaching, and potentially playing many players who have yet to be drafted. Could Eeli Tolvanen get the call to anchor Finland?
Tolvanen was initially left off of Finland’s preliminary roster announced on December 3rd, because at that time he was about to be playing ten minutes against the Buffalo Sabres. However, now that Eeli Tolvanen is no longer on an NHL roster, he is available for Team Finland, despite not being on their initial December 3rd roster.
Playing in the AHL does not prevent players from participating in World Juniors. AHL teams routinely send eligible countrymen to participate in World Juniors, and playing in the tournament is viewed as positive for a player’s development. Klim Kostin, San Antonio Rampage center, is a lock to play for Russia. Tolvanen’s tenure with the Milwaukee Admirals holds no bearing on his World Juniors eligibility.
For the Predators and Finland, sending Eeli Tolvanen to the World Juniors makes sense on a variety of levels.
First and foremost, he would very likely hold a leadership role in a young locker room. Having already played in last year’s tournament, in addition to his Olympic experience this year, he knows more than any other Finn the compete level needed to win games in the tournament.
Second, Tolvanen was in all likelihood sent down from the Predators because, with Kyle Turris returning from injury, there was no longer an available position among the team’s top-six forwards. He is simply too talented to be on the third or fourth lines and would better develop if placed on the upper lines elsewhere. Milwaukee is one fit, but Finland also works.
Third, the games which the Milwaukee Admirals are playing are nowhere near as meaningful as tournament games. Although Eeli Tolvanen already has a plethora of tournament experience, a prospect can never receive enough “big-game exposure.” Every player at World Juniors is under a microscope and, with World Juniors being held in Vancouver and Victoria this season, there will be the additional pressure of Canadian fans and media having unlimited access to teams.
Finland could certainly use a player like Eeli Tolvanen on their World Juniors roster and, now that he is no longer on the Predators’ roster, he is eligible, despite not being named to the preliminary roster. Sooner rather than later, Tolvanen could be practicing with a Finland’s yellow lion on his jersey, a change of scenery that would benefit Finland, Tolvanen, and the Predators.