Fresh from a full off-season of recovery, 19-year-old Eeli Tolvanen is ready to crack not only the Predators’ roster this season, but to earn a place as a top-six forward. Predators’ elite Finnish prospect played two years at Sioux City in the USHL before the Predators drafted him 30th overall in the 2017 NHL entry draft.
Last season, Tolvanen went back to Finland to play for Helsinki Jokerit of the KHL and shattered scoring records. Additionally, before joining Nashville at the end of the season, he played for the Finnish World Juniors team and the Finnish Olympic team. For all three teams, he was the key trigger man on the power play, operating from the half-wall similarly to Vladmir Tarasenko. He scored 19 goals and had 36 goals for Jokerit, had 6 points in 5 games in the World Juniors, and lead Finland with 9 points in 5 games at the Winter Olympics.
In the 2017-18 season, before joining Nashville, the then 18-year-old played 59 games for three different teams across three continents. He crossed over 50 time zones and 57,706 miles upon arriving in Nashville. That’s a lot of travel for Tolvanen, who was still only 18 years old and playing hockey games against fully grown men. Furthermore, he had to adjust his game to three separate teams’ systems over that time. Then, although he had already played previous years for Sioux City, he had to adjust to the different ice surface upon arriving in Nashville.
To the surprise of nobody, Tolvanen’s form upon arriving in Nashville was not that of an elite prospect, but that of a college freshman post-exams. He could not keep up physically with other players, with his lack of acceleration the most notable problem. Tolvanen was also not placed in a position to succeed, as his highly-skilled game is built for a top-six role with great passers surrounding him to open up space. Being on a line with Nick Bonino was a recipe for disaster. Tolvanen ultimately only played three games for the Nashville Predators and was never in the lineup during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Now, four months later with plenty of rest (or at least lack of travel), Eeli Tolvanen will be primed to make his mark at the Predators’ rookie and training camps these next few weeks. The Predators are hoping that he cracks the roster, as Tolvanen’s wrist shot and one-timer are already elite. The reality of Tolvanen still being only 19 years old is there, and don’t be surprised if he spends portions of the season with the Milwaukee Admirals in the AHL. However, although he still could build up more muscle, he already has a season’s experience of playing against fully grown men from playing in the KHL. It’s a matter of when, not if, he’ll have a full-time spot on the Predators.
Once he cracks the Nashville Predators’ roster, the question becomes if Head Coach Peter Laviolette finds the lineup formula to cultivate Eeli Tolvanen’s talent. A pure scoring right winger, one can only imagine what kind of success that he, Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg would have on the same line. Nonetheless, that would mean breaking up the successful “JOFA” line of Johansen, Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson, who all spent the last two seasons developing chemistry with one another.
That could still be the better than placing Tolvanen on the second line opposite from Kevin Fiala, who also demands space for his game despite having a very different playing style. One of them would likely be unable to find the ice they need to create a successful line combination, and bumping either one of them down to the third line would result in poor performance from the relegated player. It could just be more simple for Arvidsson to bounce down to the third line, as his power-forward skill set has proven transferable to any line he plays on, but then, once again, the “JOFA” line would be disbanded.
Eeli Tolvanen is coming to Nashville one way or another. Coming into camp, he is armed with a full off-season of rest and legs that will not be weighed down from playing for four teams across three continents. Even if he spends some time in Milwaukee, he will make the Predators’ roster this season. He is ready to shine, can the Predators make it happen?