As the playoffs draw near, so does the plane carrying Eeli Tolvanen from Jokerit to Nashville. Drafted 30th by the Predators last year, Tolvanen signed with Jokerit in the KHL for this season instead of playing stateside. All he has done in the interim is set every part of the hockey world outside of North America on fire. He is the KHL’s all-time 18-year-old leading scorer, had 9 points in 6 games for the Finnish Olympic team, and had 6 goals in 5 games at the World Juniors tournament. He is also the KHL’s current playoff goals leader, giving Jokerit 5 goals in 5 games, including the equalizer and overtime series-winner yesterday.
All things considered, Goalvanen - er, Tolvanen - has had one amazing year of hockey. It would still be ridiculous to expect him to produce anywhere near a point-per-game rate in the NHL, but he certainty fits the top-six role that General Manager David Poile expects for him to take in the lineup.
Eeli Tolvanen plays on the right wing, so that means either Viktor Arvidsson or Craig Smith will be getting bumped down from their roles on the roster chart. Taking the first and second lines as they are and evaluating Tolvanen’s playing style, it should be Arvidsson’s spot that Tolvanen takes.
Eeli Tolvanen thrives off of finding space and firing that one-timer from just below the top of the right circle. Basically, it’s the same shot that you see Alexander Ovechkin and Patrik Laine scoring on from the left side. While Tolvanen has fixed some of his issues accelerating since World Juniors where his first three strides looked sluggish, he still needs others to help create some space for him. Moving to the NHL, this is going to be even more critical to his game. Who on the Predators is better to create space than Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen?
Neither Forsberg nor Johansen need space to create. In fact, they’re the rare players who are at their best when they pull opponents closer to them. That ability to magnetize opponents would spring so much more space free for Tolvanen. Unlike Arvidsson, Tolvanen often “tees up” his shots. Arvidsson almost literally throws everything on net; Tolvanen takes that extra half-second to prep his shots. Forsberg and Johansen certainly would be able to buy Tolvanen those precious seconds to fire his laser of a shot on target. Below is a great example of how Tolvanen takes that extra bit of time before shooting:
Eeli Tolvanen absolutely WIRES a shot to put the Finns up 3-1 over Germany late in the second period. pic.twitter.com/GqKIX5jFAJ— Dylan Nadwodny (@dnadders) February 15, 2018
On the other hand, there already is a player who needs space to create with his skill on the second line - Kevin Fiala. When looking at the player that Fiala is, he scores from mostly odd-man rushes or plays where he’s wide open. Unlike Tolvanen, Fiala will make a move or two before shooting, but they both thrive off of free space. Would putting Tolvanen on a line with Fiala be too restrictive on Fiala’s needed space?
At the same time, chemistry is going to be a huge piece of where Tolvanen goes: not just in him gaining chemistry, but with what chemistry is being sacrificed. Both the Forsberg-Johansen-Arvidsson and Fiala-Turris-Smith lines have been great, but which would be a smaller loss to the Predators by splitting up? As much as everyone loves them, the former line is the easier to break up.
Here are the shot map links for Fiala (v. without), Turris (v. without), and Smith (v. without). Compare that to Forsberg (v. without), Johansen (v. without), and Arvidsson (v. without). With all due respect, Arvidsson is the weakest here. Forsberg and Johansen have shown the ability to create with different linemates all season, be it Forsberg with Jarnkrok or Turris centering, or Johansen playing with Hartnell or Hartman on his wing. Forsberg and Johansen are so good that they can play with anyone and make them better. Call it the Subban-Emelin effect if you will.
It is difficult to use any metric to predict on-ice chemistry, but we’ve seen Head Coach Peter Laviolette bump Arvidsson up and down the lineup over the last two years. Arvidsson is a more flexible player than Smith, who is best remembered for his success with stable lines (the current second line and the old Wilson-Fisher-Smith trio). Eeli Tolvanen’s best spot in the lineup is alongside Forsberg and Johansen, and, if it means Arvidsson moves down to the third line, then I’m sure he will excel there too.