Editorial: The Predators' mismanagement of Eeli Tolvanen represents major organizational issues
Eeli Tolvanen is gone, and fans have every right to be upset at the coaching staff and management for their decisions with the young Finn. Something has to change.
The last few days have been significant for the Nashville Predators, and not in a good way. After taking a 5-2 beating against the Tampa Bay Lightning and then losing a close game (at least on the scoreboard) against the Ottawa Senators, the team had a day off in which we saw one of the more beloved young players be placed on waivers and eventually claimed by the Seattle Kraken.
Let's get straight to the point: the way that Eeli Tolvanen was treated in Nashville's system was not good for his development and was a direct cause of him being placed on waivers. But first, I think it's essential that we go over what happened to a player that was viewed at one point as the next big goal scorer for the franchise, and how we got to this point.
In the beginning...
After being drafted 30th overall by Nashville in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft, Tolvanen played in the KHL with Jokerit, where he found plenty of success scoring 36 points in 49 games. He then played two straight seasons in the AHL (with a handful of NHL games), scoring 71 points in 121 games, with 36 goals in Milwaukee. Then, he got a shot in the NHL and took full advantage.
In the Covid-19 shortened 2020-21 season, he averaged 14:48 of ice time (the highest he would receive in his entire tenure with the Predators) and succeeded on the offensive side of the puck. He scored 22 points in 40 games and at one point had his name thrown around lightly in Calder Trophy talks. Unfortunately, he then got hurt and even after recovering didn’t return to form for the rest of the season. He still led the Predators team with six goals on the power play that season and proved that, in the correct position, he could be an effective offensive weapon.
The season was one that many Predators fans and writers (including myself) thought he could build from. The top six appeared open for the taking, but instead of securing a spot, Tolvanen bounced around the lineup at the mercy of John Hynes. Sometimes he would be in the top six; other times would find him on the fourth line with Michael McCarron, Matt Luff, Nick Cousins, Luke Kunin, or whoever else.
It's important to note that the Predators coaching staff made it clear that they wanted Tolvanen to work on his two-way game, which he did impressively well while bouncing around the lineup and into the healthy scratch seats. He led the team in almost every defensive category that involved preventing high-danger scoring chances and shot attempts.
However, I think it's safe to assume the decreased ice time (13:26 TOI), focus on his defensive and physical game (sixth on the team in hits in 2021-22 at 176), and bouncing around the lineup with players who are not as talented and can't create separation to feed him the puck led to a decrease in scoring.
So now we're here, and Tolvanen is no longer on the team. He was healthy scratched consistently for reasons unknown to many, and when he was in the lineup, his average ice time went down to 12:49 despite an increase in scoring rate at 5v5.
Not sure you'll find a stranger case of forward development in the NHL than Eeli Tolvanen.— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) December 11, 2022
Lost 5v5 ice time for the last three years, despite improving his scoring rate every year. pic.twitter.com/jr6AWLHjNz
The Predators finally pulled the trigger to send him down to Milwaukee after scoring 4 points in 13 games throughout the season. Now, he should be getting a better chance in Seattle under head coach Dave Hakstol, and Predators fans can continue to (rightfully) gripe that forwards continue to fail in the system.
Where the problems lie
There are multiple issues within this storyline that Predators fans have every reason to be upset about, and none of them have to do with Tolvanen's on-ice production, because that was not and should not be an issue.
First, Tolvanen is an objectively talented player who wasn't put in a position to succeed. As mentioned earlier, he had his name briefly thrown around in the conversation for the Calder Trophy when he was in the top six, on the first power play unit, and getting close to 15 minutes a night (the seventh-highest ATOI among all Predators forwards during the 2020-21 season). There's no denying that after his injury he was not the same, but to abandon a player who made a significant impact on the team offensively is a mind-boggling coaching decision.
It was not unfair for the Predators' management and coaching staff to ask Tolvanen to improve on his all-around game for the next season. But to watch him do that consciously, see numbers that prove he made a drastic turnaround in the defense and hitting departments, and then keep him sheltered in the lineup or else out of it entirely doesn't make much sense either.
Tolvanen earned his chance in 2022-23 to have a safe role in the top six, providing him plenty of ice time at even strength and on the man advantage. But he barely touched the ice for some reason, even after complying with what the brass wanted him to do. And the most significant issue that Predators fans rightfully take up with this coaching staff is the likes of Michael McCarron and Cole Smith playing almost every game for the team, or Colton Sissons being a second-line winger. We know that the young Finn can score goals. He's not a game-breaking talent, but at the very least, he's a threat for a team that currently ranks 29th in goals per game.
The Predators are struggling this season primarily because they have players regressing from tremendous outlier seasons and no secondary scoring to keep the team afloat. So, why bench the player who has one of the most lethal shots on the team and can provide scoring when given strong linemates and more than 13 minutes of ice time a night, while also being effective defensively?
We have written about this extensively here at On The Forecheck. Still, I think it's important to reiterate: no young player will succeed if they feel like making a mistake leads to them being benched, and Tolvanen is a prime example.
As his time in Nashville drew on, it felt as if even after his best of games, Tolvanen would be scratched. A defensive miscue here or a missed opportunity there always felt like it would lead to him being healthy scratched, and it did most of the time. This coaching philosophy is unsuitable for a team like the Predators. Playing players that are older and play a more physical game to "win now" while leaving younger, more talented players out to dry won't get anyone anywhere significant. The leash for the older players being as long as it is while the opposite is true for the younger players is a huge issue.
But the problem doesn't just sit with Hynes and the coaching staff. It sits with the general manager as well.
David Poile has a long resume with almost everything except a Stanley Cup. He helped bring the Predators into relevance around the NHL world, and he deserves every ounce of credit for that. But at this point, something needs to be said about his and his team's management of young players, which would get your ordinary general manager canned.
First, let me be clear that I'm only speculating when I say that I don't believe the market for Tolvanen was nonexistent. A young player with a lethal shot and strong underlying numbers last season not being able to fetch even a draft pick or two would leave me speechless. I'm sure most fans would rather say, "wow, that's a cheap return," instead of, "wow, we got nothing for him at all." That second statement is one we heard with Connor Ingram as well, who was claimed off of waivers by the Arizona Coyotes, which has certainly added slightly to the overall hostility from Predators fans surrounding this situation.
The biggest thing about Tolvanen's value is that there's an easy way to fix and develop a market for him as a trade piece: give him ice time. With goalies, it's different. The position is voodoo, and there's no reason to take away time from Juuse Saros to play Ingram and then trade him.
If the Predators didn't feel the market for Tolvanen was suitable, fans have every right to question why they would place him on waivers and lose him for nothing instead of playing him over 15 minutes a night with solid linemates and power play time to change that. The line of thinking doesn't add up.
It's important to note that with the injuries to Jeremy Lauzon and Alexandre Carrier, the Predators needed to bring up two defensemen to fill those holes. Because it would put them over the cap, someone would have to be sent down. And Tolvanen's $1.45 million contract is the perfect candidate. However, it was baffling to many that the people making this decision for the Predators believed that he would clear, per Sean Shapiro.
Predators were actually internally pretty confident he would clear https://t.co/ksmzc6u8Mk— Sean Shapiro (@seanshapiro) December 12, 2022
This tweet does more than make the Predators faithful collectively laugh; it also represents to many how internally tone-deaf the people building this team are. Everyone wants to win a Stanley Cup, and I'm sure many can sympathize with Poile that after two and a half decades behind the wheel of the team, it's frustrating not being able to win the whole thing. However, desperation and the digging of feet in the sand have only pulled the team backward; everyone can see that on full display now.
Things have to change
There are a few key points I hope everyone reading this will get out of it.
First, Tolvanen is not at fault. The people who put him in these positions after asking him to do certain things to his game (which he successfully did) are, and I hope he enjoys all the success in the world in Seattle.
Second, despite what was said about Hynes and his "track record of developing young talent," by Poile in the press conference he held after the hiring, he's not doing that well and hasn't done it well his entire tenure. Instead, he's prioritizing a particular archetype of player (that some media will go to the ends of the earth to defend, which is a whole other discussion) that provides marginal value in a fourth-line role. And most importantly, the likelihood of him being fired is very low, which leads me to my next point.
Third, David Poile, while he is the architect that turned the franchise from nothing into something, is clinging to a goal that is just not feasible as the teams around the Predators get faster, stronger, and harder to beat every year. And instead of doing what's right by the young and talented players within the organization who deserve a shot, he is focused on retaining a coaching staff and roster that plays a specific brand of hockey, which is being left in the dust in today's NHL.
Not only are the management and coaching teams producing a product that is consistently painful to watch, but their decisions reflect that they are not willing to let young players make mistakes, which is a massive red flag to any person slightly familiar with player development or even basic human psychology.
The bottom line is that the management of Tolvanen's development represents everything wrong with the Predators organization and what will continue to be wrong with the organization if there aren't severe philosophical changes.
The coach refuses to play Tolvanen over less talented players despite a tangible difference physically and statistical improvement defensively when that was asked of him after a successful offensive rookie season. Then, when Tolvanen does manage to get in the lineup, he barely gets an opportunity to play. Next, his reputation around the league deteriorates, resulting in a not-so-active trade market. Finally, instead of trying to boost his value to gain anything in return, Poile places him on waivers, and the team gains absolutely nothing at the end other than marginal cap relief.
It's not unfair at this point to worry about players like Cody Glass and Philip Tomasino—two immensely talented forwards that haven't been given a chance despite showcasing plenty of times they should be. But in the end, all we can do is sit back and watch. Things are dire, and fan patience has worn thin. Something has to change, and it needs to happen fast.