Eeli Tolvanen: Growing Pains?
Expectations were high for the young winger this season, but were they fair?
I don’t really have to provide an introduction for Eeli Tolvanen, and, admittedly, I’ve been hesitant to write much about him lately until I felt comfortable with my analysis. Since the end of the season, I think I’ve developed a better sense of his progress towards being an NHL regular.
Expectations were high for the 2017 first-round pick this season after he scored 19 goals and 36 points in 49 games for Jokerit last season. I noticed much frustration this season: claims of being behind the play, not skating well enough, shying away from puck battles, etc. I think you really can’t discount the translation from European to North American ice. And yes, he did play in the USHL, but that still isn’t as clutch-and-grab hockey as the AHL. Some players make that translation better than others. I am a big proponent of the idea that Tolvanen’s 2017-18 season inflated expectations too high and that he diversified his offensive and defensive game really well this season in Milwaukee.
Below, I take a look at a few data visualizations and game clips to walk you through my point.
In 2017-18, Tolvanen scored 19 goals and nine of those came on the power play. He took about 172 shots and finished shooting at 11.0%, which is fairly good but could be higher. First, I think it was lost often in arguments how nearly half of his goals came with a man advantage on bigger ice. I don’t want to dismiss special teams scoring—it’s important. But, obviously, you spend more time at even strength during the game than 50%, typically.
I could only find access to 15 of his goals from that season, which actually works out well for comparison’s sake. You’ll notice a complete avoidance of the high-danger area. That’s not surprising considering the shooter he is. But you can also tell how much he loaded up on the top of the left circle, indicative of his power-play production.
Now, take a look at this season’s heat map. He’s completely abandoned that power play spot, and it wasn’t necessarily due to a new system or strategy. I think we can decipher a really large advance in his hockey IQ this season. Notice how he has closed in on the high-danger area without quite getting there. You saw it several times this season, where he took advantage of finding open space opposite of the puck and on the other side of the Royal Road. As a result, many of his goals closer to the net featured a goalie completely out of it. Some would suggest that makes it easier, but it was Tolvanen’s awareness that puts the goalie in that position to begin with.
I also mapped out where Tolvanen was beating goalies in the KHL. The above viz shouldn’t be much of a surprise; with a lethal wrist shot, Tolvanen can pick corners like there’s no tomorrow. But it also does complement his over-reliance on power play one-timers and cross-slot puck movement with the man advantage.
This past season, in the AHL, Tolvanen relied on finding weaknesses lower on goalies and developed a better tendency to utilize the low gloves and blockers of goalies not quite square to his deceptive shot.
Just think, for a moment, how hard it is to produce elite offensive numbers while scoring nowhere near the high-danger scoring area. I anticipate Tolvanen will grow more acclimated to the netfront, but his best tool will always be his wrist shot. The more space he has, the more he can fool goalies with his release, and his skating isn’t elite enough to blow by defenders below the hash marks.
Tolvanen still managed to finish tied for second in U20 scoring among forwards last season while shooting just 9.6% and playing mostly middle-six minutes. His game can thrive on volume shooting and picking holes from a distance, but simply by adjusting his willingness to create space elsewhere in the zone and utilize different shots when necessary, I think Tolvanen’s season could be rendered a success.
This past season wasn’t without typical showings of Tolvanen’s ability to mesmerize with his shot. Below, for instance, is a perfect example of his bread and butter from the KHL, and it’s an excellent tool to have.
He has a very good ability to attack shooting lanes and parse through them with his stick blade. You see that above before he picks an opposite corner from such a tight angle.
Above is a really simple play, but coming on from a line change can be an awkward time to commit to the offensive zone as the third forward if your team doesn’t have complete puck control. Aside from the excellent play by Anthony Richard, Tolvanen makes good use of the net front and tracks the puck well while avoiding collapsing defenders. A quick pivot combined with his shot produces a beautiful goal.
The above clip is a more complete view of Tolvanen’s transition game. He’s a fairly good neutral zone skater, but I think there is an assumption his defense is lacking. Above he recognizes the impending breakout after slightly disrupting it, regroups in the neutral zone and provides a top-notch forecheck: leaning to one side with his stick in that passing lane, forcing the puck-carrier to make the opposite move into more traffic. He capitalizes on the following turnover with a Tarasenko-like shot, too.
Additionally, I think Tolvanen’s passing is overlooked as an above-average skill. He obviously has an excellent touch with the puck, but consistently showed good awareness by shooting for rebounds and extending cycles laterally, not just north to south.
I understand the temptation for impatience. However, I don’t think it’s fair to label this season a disappointment for Tolvanen. It certainly wasn’t one to write home about, and there are faults to his game: skating (which will always be a slight limitation), discipline in defensive positioning, and shooting more from medium and low-danger areas. But he has really developed his strengths and added to his arsenal this season by getting more comfortable moving laterally in the offensive zone with and without the puck, providing better cycle support below the hash marks, and creating and finding space at even strength.
I wouldn’t rule out (and do partially anticipate) Tolvanen making Nashville’s roster at some point next season, though I do think some more AHL time will be helpful. If he stays in Milwaukee most of the season, I anticipate a 50+ season barring any injuries or incidents.
All statistics are courtesy of eliteprospects.com.