What again transpired at the 2019 World Junior Championship in British Columbia is truly baffling. Martin Necas of the Czech Republic and Eeli Tolvanen of Finland are both quality NHL prospects. Each of them was a first-round pick in the 2017 draft. Both had excellent 2017-18 seasons, highlighted by elite performances at the 2018 WJC. And Tolvanen went on to star at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Both of them started this season in the NHL, Necas with Carolina and Tolvanen with Nashville, before heading to the AHL to continue their development. Their respective countries were delighted when the players were made available for the 2019 WJC. Each player was placed on his team’s first line and top power-play unit. Both saw time killing penalties and were used in all important situations late in games. Unfortunately, neither player lived up to expectations. In both cases, the final verdict would be that their play was “just OK.” Neither came close to matching their performance of a year earlier. Both continued the puzzling tradition of players returning from professional hockey and delivering underwhelming performances at the world juniors. What does this say about Necas and Tolvanen? What happened? And, in light of this chapter in their careers, what does it say about their future as NHL prospects?
Until the WJC, there were few bumps on the career paths of either player. Necas was drafted 12th overall in 2017 and continued to play for Brno in the Czech Republic last season. This year he played seven games for the Hurricanes and has since played regularly for Charlotte in the AHL. He has now suited up in three world juniors. In the 2018 tournament, he was a star, recording 11 points in seven games. In this year’s edition, he struggled with four points in five games and, on numerous occasions, appeared too slow to execute normal plays in scoring situations. Tolvanen was drafted 30th in 2017 after playing two seasons for Sioux City in the USHL. In 2017-18, he returned to Finland to play for Jokerit in the KHL. This season, he played four games for the Predators and has since been a regular with AHL Milwaukee. Tolvanen has also played in three world juniors. In each of the first two events, he averaged more than a point per game. In this year’s gold medal-winning tournament for Finland, he had only four points in seven games with no goals, even though he had countless scoring opportunities. In the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, Tolvanen finished second in overall scoring with nine points in five games. He excelled as a goal-scorer and a playmaker and was arguably Finland’s best player. This is a level Necas has yet to reach.
This category is only close in one aspect. Both Necas and Tolvanen work hard in defensive situations. Tolvanen’s superior strength combined with better body positioning in 1-on-1 confrontations gives him a wide overall edge. Twice against Canada and once against the U.S., Tolvanen saved the day with a strong, perfectly timed stick lift to prevent what looked like sure goals.
Necas is a classic playmaking center whose priority is to find teammates in good scoring position. He has a pass-first mentality. Most of his shots are from close in. There is nothing exceptional about his shooting, either in velocity or quickness of release. In the 2019 WJC, there were occasions where he was not able to respond quickly enough when presented with a scoring opportunity. Tolvanen can make plays as well as Necas, but he is also looking to put himself into good scoring position in the offensive zone. When he was playing the point on Finland’s power play, he was eager to blast one-time shots from either side of the ice. His shot is released quickly and with power. But at the WJC, Tolvanen couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. I lost track of the number of times he put himself into perfect scoring position, quickly took a shot but missed the mark. Regardless, Tolvanen is a powerful NHL shooter. Necas is not.
Necas is a tall, lanky, right-handed center who can handle the puck and make plays. Tolvanen is a left-handed winger who can perform effectively on either wing. He has a shorter, thicker body build. The role Necas is looking to fill is more valuable for an NHL team. Centers are your offensive linchpins. Their puckhandling is the key to creating proper puck possession for your team. Right-handed centers are like left-handed pitchers in baseball – they are prized assets and harder to find.
Necas has relatively short, choppy strides and lacks strength in his acceleration. He is balanced and his feet are quick, but he sometimes has the “Bambi” look, with wobbly legs when he tries to turn and accelerate at the same time. With added strength and physical maturity, his skating should become adequate. Tolvanen is strong on his skates with quickness, acceleration and good speed. His movements are fluid. He may already be an above-average NHL skater.
The 2019 WJC was just one chapter in the career books of Necas and Tolvanen, but it didn’t make for of pleasant reading. For the first time, they were not young players getting credit for whatever they accomplished against older opponents. Now they were the older players returning from higher levels of hockey. The pressure was on them to perform, and the effect of the pressure showed. To their credit, both Necas and Tolvanen continued to compete hard even though they were not enjoying offensive success. Both players have, throughout their careers, demonstrated the potential to become valuable NHL players on contending teams. Necas has average physical attributes but good hockey sense and puck skills. He projects as right-handed playmaker on an offensive line. He has value. Tolvanen is a powerfully built left-handed winger who could play either wing on any type of NHL line. He could complement two good offensive linemates with corner work to get pucks, playmaking and the ability to finish plays with his strong shot. With his strength, skating and competitiveness, Tolvanen could also play a more defensive role. The potential role of Necas is more valuable, but if he does not increase his strength and leg power, he will be an average player in that role. Tolvanen is closer physically to reaching his potential in the NHL. He will, however, never be as valuable as a top-end center. He is a more versatile than Necas, and I would project his chances of success in the NHL as being more likely. In this case, I buck the scouting consensus. I go for the safer choice. Take Eeli Tolvanen over Martin Necas.