It Took Some Time, But Eeli Tolvanen is Starting to Live Up to Expectations

There was a lot of hype surrounding Tolvanen during his days in the KHL, but his North American pro career started off quite rocky. He's finally starting to find his groove, and that's good news for the Predators.
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Eeli Tolvanen

Eeli Tolvanen

Eeli Tolvanen's North American pro career has been a bit of a mess.

You may remember all the positive press he got during the 2017-18 season. After turning pro in the KHL, Tolvanen had one of the best rookie seasons in KHL history with Jokerit and made the Olympic all-star team for Finland as a teenager. When Tolvanen signed his entry-level contract after his KHL campaign came to a close, he signed an NHL deal and it looked like he'd be an instant success in the NHL. 

But after a three-game stint to finish off 2017-18, Tolvanen couldn't stick with the big club and was sent down to the Milwaukee Admirals. Tolvanen didn't take any big steps in his game, with Martin Necas, Filip Zadina and Erik Brannstrom taking more control of the spotlight instead.

Tolvanen's second North American pro season wasn't much better, recording just 36 points in 63 games for an Admirals team that likely would have contended for the Calder Cup had the season not been prematurely canceled. The 2020-21 season started with Tolvanen returning back to the Jokerit club that helped shape his game, and even there, he wasn't anything too special with 13 points in 25 games. So where is he now? Well, now he's a true Calder Trophy contender three years after making his NHL debut. It feels like a long time coming, but the wait is starting to appear worth it. Tolvanen finally is a full-time, everyday contributor for the Predators, a club that currently holds the best record over the past 10 games with an 8-2-0 run.

How important has Tolvanen been over that span? The Finnish winger has been Nashville's best player with four goals and 10 points - Calle Jarnkrok and Roman Josi trailed behind with six points each. Tolvanen has been effective at both 5-on-5 and on the power play with five points apiece, but his three game-winning goals in that span ties him with Connor McDavid and Mika Zibanejad in that span. Clutch isn't an actual hockey metric, but it definitely helps describe Tolvanen when three of his four goals helped decide the victory in Nashville's favor. You're no longer finding him deep in the lineup: he's there at Ryan Johansen's side on the top line and doing absolutely everything right right now.

It's starting to look like the hype was real, albeit not at the all-star quality some made him out to be. The 30th overall pick in 2017, a lot of attention was turned to Tolvanen once he started to make his mark in the KHL, leaving many to wonder if he was going to be the steal of the first round. But that focus started to shift away from him and over to Edmonton's Kailer Yamamoto after his emergence a year ago, but now Tolvanen is starting to produce at the level many expected him.

It didn't start off easy for Tolvanen this season, of course. Things were ugly to begin with when Tolvanen recorded just one point over his first eight games, coming in his season debut on his only shot in a 5-2 loss to Tampa Bay. But since then, he hasn't gone more than two outings without a point to his credit, and his ice time has gone from just under 12 minutes a game to over 15 on a consistent basis. 

He's been so good, in fact, that Money Puck has him ninth in goals-above-expected with six. Tolvanen's 3.7 goals-above replacement, per Evolving-Hockey, is fourth on the Predators, but behind Calder Trophy favorite Kirill Kaprizov (6.1) among rookies (Tim Stützle, for reference, sits at 0.4). Still, that's quite something given how slow of a start Tolvanen had and what he's done ever since to help make the Preds a threat again while sitting fourth in the competitive Central Division.

Tolvanen isn't lighting the league up by any means, the Predators are definitely a better team when he's engaged and playing well. Consistency is something that's been a tough thing to harness in his pro career and he often gets criticized for being a one-dimensional perimeter-style player. And that's fair - Tolvanen isn't a standout in his own zone by any means and you can count a couple of times a night where he's floating around too much. But it's so hard to stop his trademark wrist shot and he's continuing to work with Nashville's coaching staff to iron out a few of the deficiencies in his game. The high-flying, nobody can stop me offensive style he made work in the KHL may help him succeed on bigger ice, but he needs to still remain a threat on every shift he takes in the NHL to take his game to a higher level.

Tolvanen isn't likely the big-time scorer the Predators truly need, and, for the most part, have rarely ever had in the lineup. But the team needs as much secondary options as they can get, and with the way Tolvanen is playing right now, he's fulfilling that need with very little difficulty at the moment.

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