Core Values and Adding Layers: How the AHL prepared Eeli Tolvanen and Mathieu Olivier for NHL impact

Eeli Tolvanen and Mathieu Olivier are making a big impact on Nashville’s roster, largely thanks to Milwaukee head coach Karl Taylor.

If you’ve only been a fan of the Nashville Predators since their Stanley Cup run back in 2017, the first draft pick you heard about was probably Eeli Tolvanen.

Tolvanen came highly touted as an offensive threat. His legend only grew as he played for Finland in the World Junior Championship and dazzled in the KHL for Jokerit Helsinki for the 2017-2018 season. His KHL season saw him score 19 goals and 17 assists in the regular season and an additional 6 goals and 1 assist in the playoffs. And when the season ended, Tolvanen came to Nashville as a black ace, played in three games and…didn’t get involved in scoring at all. It seemed like the vast majority of fans had the wind taken out of their Tolvanen sails as their expectations didn’t line up with their reality. Many declared him a bust, others quickly soured on his potential, but the Predators sent him to Milwaukee.

If you’ve been following the Nashville Predators, you know the Milwaukee Admirals are the AHL affiliate of the team. You’ll probably also know that the AHL serves the dual purpose of being both a development league and the minor league to the NHL. Predators fans have heard that “the road to Nashville goes through Milwaukee,” and have become used to the idea that sometimes players will get called up to the NHL from Milwaukee or sent back down to Milwaukee. However, what exactly happens in the AHL? Sure, they play hockey, but how do you “develop” a player? What did “going to Milwaukee” mean for Eeli Tolvanen?

Karl Taylor was hired to coach the Admirals the summer before Tolvanen’s first season with the AHL club. He was hired away from the Texas Stars, the AHL affiliate of the Dallas Stars, where he served as an assistant coach. I had the chance to talk to Coach Taylor earlier this week. We spoke, at length, about what it takes to develop players at the AHL level to prepare them for their opportunity at the NHL level.

Development in the AHL

First, it’s important to point out that AHL teams don’t just serve as a development sandbox for prospects. AHL teams are made up of NHL prospects, career AHL players, and former NHLers toward the end of their careers. It’s also important to note that the teams in this league are also focused on winning.

Taylor explains, “If you have the right veteran group that can assist you, you have an opportunity to win, but also to have your young players develop in a winning environment that will accelerate their growth.” This is the combination that all AHL teams hope to find, but recently, Karl Taylor and the rest of the coaching staff in Milwaukee have been doing an incredible job with this. I believe the secret to their success comes from the following coaching philosophy:

“Our goal, when the players come to us is to make them better, period. Increase their value, increase the opportunity for them to get to the NHL. Even our AHL contract players, our goal with them every year is ‘how do we get you another contract, how do we keep you playing? How do we keep you in the AHL?’ We’re invested in every single player we get.”

This full investment in every player, regardless of their prospect situation, ceiling, or age, means that each practice, each game, and each meeting is focused on development. How does that development happen? Taylor explains that it all comes down to two things: core values and adding layers.

According to Taylor, “Everyone has a different skillset that that makes them a special player to get to the AHL.” Those skills, he explains, are their core values. The focus, then, is to find ways to round out those skills by adding layers, which makes them a complete player.

Eeli Tolvanen broadens his game

After a recent game, Eeli Tolvanen stated that when he arrived from his early stint in the KHL, he was very offensively-minded. It would seem that Tolvanen was focused on his core values. Coach Taylor identified Tolvanen’s core values:

“Every day, he’s an elite shooter. We all know that; he’s got a great shot—it’s on and off his stick very quickly. He makes plays that other people can’t. He’s an elite shooter. He’s an outstanding power play contributor, that’s something he does every day. Those things are always there.”

Once Taylor had a chance to work with Tolvanen, he explained that his focus was to get him ready for the NHL as quickly as possible. The first thing they did was identify those core values, then focus on how to effectively build layers. The idea behind building these layers doesn’t seek to change who the player is fundamentally, but to make them a more complete player. The thought process, according to Taylor, starts with the following question:

“How do we extend your life when you get a chance in the NHL and you play five games and you don’t score?”

A great example of this is Tolvanen’s first stint with the Predators. He saw three games, registered no goals and no assists, and found himself in Milwaukee for the next season. Taylor explains that this where the layers come in. “For you to stay there, you better make sure you’re taking care of the other areas or else they’re not going to give you those five games. Maybe it’s two games and maybe it takes [the player] five games to get comfortable, or to have some time and some understanding of the league, to allow him a chance to show his ability to use his core skills. So, if you can’t play a complete game, you’re not going to have that time to allow your core skills, no matter what that special quality is, to come out.”

Tolvanen’s run with the Predators this season seems to be the one that’s sticking. So far, he’s played in 13 games. And while he’s recently started showing that sniper’s edge, it took several games, as Taylor mentioned, before those skills started to show. In those several games before he started scoring, Tolvanen weathered criticism that his play was one-dimensional.

He even praised his time in Milwaukee with Coach Taylor as the experience that helped him find his defensive game and improve overall as a player. “Those couple of years I spent I Milwaukee were key for me. All the coaching staff and players helped me a lot defensively and just to play the defensive game. I think when I got over here after the KHL, I was more of an offensive guy, and now I feel more comfortable in the defensive zone. It’s easier to play when you don’t make mistakes in the defensive zone.”

After the very same game, Predators Head Coach John Hynes took questions about Tolvanen and explained, quite plainly, “It’s funny how things transpire because when he came in everyone was offense, offense, offense, but for a young player to come into the league, the reason he got into the lineup originally was because of his play without the puck and his competitiveness. Then he gets in and starts to find his way, he continues to find his way and continues to get opportunities to play because he’s responsible without the puck. He knows how to play. He knows where to be. We’ve talked to him about the competitive level you need to be at here in the NHL to be able to play; he’s done that. He’s been physical, he’s been good on his puck battles, now he gets a game and more ice time, more opportunity.

That’s how you grow a young player. They get opportunities, they earn more, but to his credit, he’s done the work. He’s the guy that has given us reasons to play him in the situations that he’s earning to play in.

“That’s a good thing on Tolvy and now we’ve given him a little more ice time, a little more of a role at five on five, a little bit of a different look on the power play and he continues to make progress so that’s a good thing for him and for us.”

When I asked Coach Taylor about this he responded, “It was great to see John mention that that’s what got [Tolvanen] into the games, because that’s something he had to learn in development. It’s not that he couldn’t do it, he just had to learn and be committed to it.” What Karl Taylor is teaching in Milwaukee is what’s making players stick on the NHL roster.

Mathieu Olivier earns his spot

Everything that Eeli Tolvanen is—first-round draft pick, elite shooter, a major power-play contributor—Mathieu Olivier is not. Olivier went undrafted. Olivier earned an AHL contract and earned an NHL contract. He’s not an elite shooter, and has seen very little power play time, even at the AHL level. He made an eight-game appearance with the Predators last season. His performance, through my own recollection, was unremarkable enough (outside of a fight) that I thought it was far fewer than eight games.

Taylor was quick to correct my faulty memory, but that also led me to ask him what happened between Olivier’s last stint in the NHL and this current stint in the NHL. Of course, it all had to do with core values, layers, and the development that Karl Taylor has turned into an art form. Taylor said of Olivier, “He’s got to be hard on pucks, he’s got to be difficult to play against, he’s got to stop in the crease and stare people in the eye every single day. If he wants to stay there, that’s his job.” The layers that had to be added to Olivier’s game were simple—they worked on his touches, skills, and finishing rate.

In Milwaukee, Olivier played on a line with Tanner Jeannot, who made his debut on Tuesday. Taylor explained the impact of that line on the Admirals. “They would absolutely dominate the offensive zone and extend plays. They would hold onto pucks. Those two guys on the wings were just outstanding at extended plays in the offensive zones. So they would allow us to grind teams down. We could double up on teams and put out our so-called scoring lines after they followed those guys, which created situations where our team had a clear advantage.”

And while this role is drastically different from Tolvanen’s role, in Nashville and Milwaukee, it’s a crucial and necessary role on any team. Olivier’s development into a mainstay on the fourth line is a testament to what Taylor preaches.

“You’ve got to realize whatever you are deep down inside that’s what you’ve got to use every day. That can’t go away, it’s non-negotiable.”

For Olivier, specifically, Taylor explains, “I think he just came to the realization, and it’s a maturation process for him, that it takes time and everyone’s on a different growth or development curve. It doesn’t happen overnight and everyone has a different path. Undrafted, AHL deal, NHL contract, got those games and now he’s been in the NHL since the start of the season. He’s earned that spot but there’s other guys chomping to get it from him, so he’s got to find a way to hold it.”

Development and the coach

Of course, the issue with being good at coaching in the AHL and developing players effectively is that success means losing players. I asked Taylor about this, and though his answer is long, it’s worth putting out there in it’s entirety because it perfectly explains who he is a coach, as a hockey fan, and as a human:

When I coached in the ECHL, losing players was disappointing because you had to find other players and a lot of times, they didn’t come back. In the AHL, you’re putting a lot of time into the player and the prospects in the organization that you work for. It’s very rewarding work. You’re able to work with these guys, me and the assistant coaches put a lot of time into these individuals.

Our focus as a coaching staff is “we’re going to coach every player they give us equally.” Our job is to make them better.

They may not play for Nashville, maybe they become an increased asset that allows Nashville to make a trade and get someone else. Regardless of the end result, our goal, when the players come to us, is to make them better, period. Increase their value, increase the opportunity for them to get to the NHL.

Even our AHL contract players, like Cole Schneider who’s gone on to play for Texas this year, our goal with him every year is “how do we get you another contract? How do we keep you playing? How do we keep you in the AHL?” So, we’re invested in every single player we get. Not just the Tolvanens and the first-round picks. Obviously, those guys are going to get the attention and get the care, but when we see a player move on and play in the NHL, we are extremely proud. We are excited to watch them; we are cheering on the couch and hoping they are going to have success. And not for personal gain, but because we’ve been in the trenches with them and know what they’ve gone through to get to that point and through their development.

In the end, the player has to do the work. Coaches are there assisting and helping. If we had a .0001 percent impact on the player, we made a difference. And our goal, as a staff, is if the organization has a plan for a player to get to the NHL in a specific amount of time, we want to shorten that time and get them there quicker. Not just to play a game, but to stay there and have an impact. That’s the difference in the way we look at it. The focus is great pride and probably more excitement for the player and their family and what’s occurring for them in the moment.

The youth movement may have been overhyped as far this season goes, but the youth in this organization are strong, and getting stronger with the expert guidance of Karl Taylor.