After watching what he did last season for the Nashville Predators, the hype around Eeli Tolvanen was back. Even though he struggled at even strength, his performance on the power play was a huge strength, and he looked far more confident shooting the puck. He was drafted for his shot, and finally, seeing him utilize it at the NHL level brought joy to the fanbase, coaching staff, and management. The young prospect that was supposed to be a perennial 25 to 30-goal scorer was on his way to reaching that potential.
However, with 22 games completed in the 2021-22 NHL season, the numbers just haven’t shown up for the Finnish sniper. He only has six points, and one of them is a goal that he scored in the Predators’ first game of the season against the Seattle Kraken. It was a good shot, but it came off of an odd faceoff play, and it wasn’t exactly the type of goal one would expect Tolvanen to score on a nightly basis. Of course, there will be some that end up in the back of the net like that. But for a player with his kind of shot, more goals from the outside would be encouraging.
The good things about Tolvanen’s game don’t revolve around his original strengths. They actually revolve around what he has been working on since coming over to North America. His physicality is much improved, and his ability to take contact with the puck on his stick has drastically changed positively. He’s fifth on the Predators in hits with 34. He’s playing the body well, and his forechecking has been some of the best on the team. He’s drawing penalties, getting to the net, and most importantly, he’s shooting the puck.
In terms of total shot attempts (Corsi), he’s fourth on the team with 86. He’s third on the team in total unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick) with 69 and third in shots that went on net with 59. The only players that are above him in those last two categories are Roman Josi and Matt Duchene.
Tolvanen is also playing a strong defensive game. With a 57.21 expected goals for percentage (xGF%), which is good for second on the team, we can reasonably assume at first glance that he’s playing well in both ends of the ice. He has the second-highest expected goals for per 60 (xGF/60), so he’s generating the chances. He also has the second-lowest expected goals against per 60 (xGA/60), which means he’s not allowing many high-danger opportunities.
Even his goals for percentage (GF%) is incredible. He ranks first on the team at 66.28 percent, primarily because of his defensive numbers. Goals against per 60 (GA/60) can be a misleading statistic because it is affected by how the goaltending performs. However, he is still third on the team in that category. It’s somewhat incredible that he could be even higher up in GF% if he contributed more to the offense.
Overall, Tolvanen’s analytics are really strong, and he’s doing things off the puck that are necessary for success. He was brought up because of the work he put in on his forechecking, physicality, and play away from the puck. He worked hard in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals to round out his game. Everyone, including the coaching staff, knew that his shot was already a strength. He is getting the chances, and he’s playing well by the underlying numbers.
There is a problem, though. Tolvanen isn’t putting the puck in the net, and that’s what he’s paid to do. He’s fortunate that the guys who are being paid more than him to produce are playing well, so it’s semi-covering up for his inability to score. The fact is that one goal isn’t going to cut it, and the question needs to be asked, what should be done? How do you fix it when the player with arguably the most lethal shot on the team isn’t scoring?
Well, for starters, shooting at 1.7 percent isn’t sustainable. In his short career, Tolvanen’s average shooting percentage is 10.1. He’s bound for regression because we know he can put the puck in the net. The problem is that it isn’t happening.
A lot of his success on the power play came when he was with Filip Forsberg in 2020-21, which obviously may be hard to get because the first unit is finally playing up to the standard that they should be. However, the second unit could use some changes to help utilize Tolvanen’s shooting. There’s no threat to score outside of him, so teams are aware that they can cheat rather than commit to Luke Kunin, Nick Cousins, or Tommy Novak. One of the changes that could be beneficial is putting Philip Tomasino on the second unit. He would get more ice time, and he’s much more of a threat to score. It would do plenty of good for the overall skill in that second unit. Of course, Kunin, Cousins, and Novak all fit a specific role. However, without Tomasino on there in some form, it makes the scorer’s job (in this case Tolvanen) a lot harder.
Also, I’m very aware that plenty of people don’t care about the analytics if the results aren’t showing up in the box score. However, I think it’s imperative that we look at the analytics more for struggling players rather than those who are playing on par with expectations. They let us know if the player is doing the right things and if they’re bound for a regression in a positive way. Tolvanen is.
For now, it’s just a matter of getting some puck luck. If one bounce goes the right way, we could see the floodgates open for tons of scoring. It would benefit the Predators in so many ways to have Tolvanen scoring again. He’s doing the things that he needs to produce. There is still a fair bit of time for him to get back on track this season, but something needs to be done quickly. There should be faith throughout the fanbase that he can bounce back, because all signs suggest that he will.