Whether you were watching from Ford Ice Center, or (like me) squinting to make out details through the mesh in the arena over the internet, the Nashville prospects’ penultimate game ended exactly as most of us hoped it would—former first round pick and official Next Big Thing Eeli Tolvanen found space during the 3-on-3 overtime period and sent the game-winning goal rocketing into the back of the net.
The relief was palpable and obvious—from the coaches, to the fans, and to Tolvanen himself. Nashville hasn’t had a forward prospect with this potential since Filip Forsberg was dropped from the heavens above into our laps. We’ve watched him eagerly in international tournaments, record-setting KHL games with Jokerit, and, recently, brief NHL stints bookending his first AHL season with the Admirals.
Credit where it is due—he’s still an actual kid playing with teammates some of whom he just met two days prior. He scored goals, one of the hardest things to do in world (at least for me), and we’re hearing calls that perhaps this is his first legitimate push to earn a regular spot in the Predators’ regular season lineup.
Debbie Downer alert: I’m not sure I agree, and much of what I saw on Sunday matches the growing pains of a high-level athlete we watched in Milwaukee last season. But that’s OK! We’ll discuss that for a little bit! Then after we’re done, we’ll go over why Nashville fans have a lot more to be excited about and things that have the potential to affect the start of the season, more so than the young Finn with the laser-focused shot.
A Rough Effort Salvaged by Late-Game Heroics
I won’t mince words—prior to the game-winner, Tolvanen had a pretty rough day. Starting on a line with fellow first rounder and shiny new prospect Philip Tomasino and surprise top-ranked OTF prospect Rem Pitlick, it was easy to expect great things. However, the usual struggles started to pop up.
Admirals coach Karl Taylor remarked that in Saturday’s performance, Tolvanen was performing better while taking big hits from the opposition. Sunday, this was an area where he struggled. Tolvanen can be a dynamic player, but his shot is what made him famous—he’s not the playmaking type like a Viktor Arvidsson or Filip Forsberg. On three offensive zone entries (by my count), Tolvanen took long, deliberate strides while carrying the puck in, but a Washington defender could disrupt his play fairly easily by laying a hit on him. And when they did, the puck usually came off his stick, and Nashville was lucky if it would stay in the zone. His troubles getting muscled off of the puck remind me (unfortunately) of another former Predators first-round pick in Kevin Fiala.
He took an unfortunate hooking penalty late in the third period off an odd bounce of the puck. I’m not one to punish a player for drawing a penalty to stop a scoring opportunity—but the opportunity was one he helped create.
The other issue I saw in Tolvanen’s game Sunday was his ability to create space for himself so his teammates could find him and his deadly shot. He still has the tendency to drift in place in the circle, waiting for the puck to come to him—in the large rinks in Europe, this was much more viable. However, space is at a premium on North American ice, and even more so in the NHL.
He shone on the power play—as we all would hope to see—and the extra space afforded to him in overtime was exactly what he needed to flex his muscles and pull the Nashville prospects to a 2-0 record for the Showcase.
Eeli Tolvanen did well overall, and he won the game. But I firmly believe that I was so drawn to his struggles Sunday afternoon because his teammates played absolutely brilliant hockey.
What more can we say here at On The Forecheck about Rem Pitlick? Resident prospect expert Eric—someone who is constantly having to teach me about junior hockey—is high on the former Golden Gopher, and the Predators coaches are too. And for very, very good reason.
Pitlick played as if he had an extra gear that the majority of the other players on the ice did not. He added his second goal of the weekend in spectacular fashion, and all afternoon he drove play with and without the puck with purpose. When Pitlick was in the offensive zone, he was either getting the puck in deep, or getting open for his teammates. By rough count (I missed a section of the first period), Pitlick either created himself or contributed to 9 scoring chances.
The high-flying nature of these games lends itself to a lot of back and forth hockey, but Pitlick was on a mission, and he was successful. Pitlick may not have the ceiling of his prospect teammates, but I’d take him in a heartbeat over some of the current Nashville bottom six forwards.
Alexandre Carrier and Jeremy Davies
Two players that often shared the ice with Rem Pitlick and Tolvanen on Sunday nearly stole the show themselves in the first two periods. Jeremy Davies and Alexandre Carrier were driving play à la Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, and somehow also managing to get back to play disciplined, structured defense. Carrier ended the day with two (official) assists—I still think he should have one for the goal on the power play—but he and Davies were electric.
I’ve been on the Team Frédéric Allard bandwagon for some time now, but Allard’s fairly pedestrian performance looked dulled next to new prospect Jeremy Davies and Carrier taking the offensive zone all by themselves.
Something that gets lost sometimes when we are watching for electric wingers, or high-flying defenders, is a position Nashville fans haven’t had to worry about in some time: goaltender. Connor Ingram (24 saves on 26 shots) has absolutely lived up to the hype that has followed him since his odd departure from Tampa Bay and arrival in Nashville. He was technically sound—a trait I see often in Juuse Saros—where a lack of Pekka Rinne-esque size is covered by extremely skillful movement.
There was a very high pace for most of the game, and after pitching a shutout in his brief work on Saturday, Ingram made save after save on shots that I honestly thought were surefire goals. His first goal allowed this weekend was a disappointment for sure—he had a routine stop that didn’t cooperate, and the puck leaked out for the rebound goal—but he faced a lot of high-danger chances, including the other goal which was generated from a turnover in the defensive zone.
He and Capitals goaltender Thompson put on a display that had former Pred and color man Chris Mason absolutely overjoyed. His genuine and very Canadian excitement for goalie play was on full display on Sunday, and both players showed that they are a step above the usual goaltenders you might see in these prospect games—these aren’t junior level draftees or AHL/ECHL mainstays. Ingram is showing that he might just be able to challenge Troy Grosenick for starts in Milwaukee, and Grosenick was arguably the best goalie in the AHL last season.
About halfway through the game, Yakov Trenin made his presence felt, and he really escalated his play and was one of the main driving forces behind the game-tying goal. He’s getting better.
Egor Afanasyev had a beauty of a goal himself, and the advantage granted by his size really started to show up in the second period. He was an absolute steal as a second-round pick, and I’m very excited to watch him this season—Johnathan Moran in Windsor will be following him closely all season and he’s a great follow for the Spitfires and the OHL overall.
Tommy Novak and Zach Magwood had strong shifts in the game as well—I missed some of Novak’s action early in the game, but Zach Magwood was doing Zach Magwood things, creating something out of nothing and reminding us that he absolutely belongs after being an invitee last year.
An Ugly Moment
If anyone had a very forgettable or just downright bad game yesterday, it was defender Josh Healy. He was pushing his weight around early, laying some big hits early to knock Washington defenders off the puck. But he racked up 17 penalty minutes, including a five-minute major and 10 minute game misconduct for an absolutely unacceptable hit at the end of the second period. Capitals prospect Alexyev took a shot from near the blue line as the buzzer sounded, and about a second later, Healy came speeding in from across the ice and caught Alexyev’s head clear with his shoulder, spinning him to the ground and drawing the ire of the Capitals players. The shot had gone off clearly before Healy was in striking distance, and the buzzer had sounded, yet Healy made a very dumb mistake that could’ve seriously injured Alexyev (fortunately, he was okay). This turned an already difficult penalty kill into a five-minute penalty kill to start the third period.
I know I came off a bit harsh in writing off the celebratory Tolvanen mood generated after his game-winning effort, but I wanted to only temper them to bring them down to Earth just a little bit.
Eeli Tolvanen did what you want a prospect to do, but he still needs time to develop, and with a very crowded top six in Nashville, it would be detrimental to give the young winger bottom-six minutes, instead of a much larger load in the AHL.
He still needs a dynamic playmaker to help him into the zone, but the potential is still there, and his shooting talent isn’t something you just find every year—I firmly believe he’ll be something special in a middle six role and a power play specialist in a year or two. But rejoice: a group of very talented teammates played exceptionally well this weekend, so there’s no rush for Tolvanen to be the Nashville prospect pool’s only savior.