When Eeli Tolvanen slid all the way down to No. 30 in the 2017 draft, it was seen as a coup for the Nashville Predators. After all, the team already had the best defense corps in the league and now they were getting a verified sniper up front to help Filip Forsberg on offense.
But the Finnish left winger was sent down to AHL Milwaukee this week and now there is chatter in the media about whether Tolvanen will return to the KHL (which is allowed as per his contract), the league he tore asunder last year as a member of Helsinki-based Jokerit. For me, that would be the worst thing for Tolvanen’s development.
As I see it, Tolvanen’s biggest challenge involves the pace and claustrophobic nature of the NHL compared to the European game – the smaller ice surface over here means there is no place to hide and checkers get on top of the puck carrier a lot faster.
Now, Tolvanen has had success on North American ice before, but really only once – when he played for the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL. That was junior hockey and goalies simply couldn’t handle his lightning-quick release. During his draft year (his second with the Musketeers), Tolvanen potted 30 goals in 52 games, tying him for third in the league.
From there Tolvanen was supposed to go to Boston College, but NCAA eligibility for Europeans can be tricky and it didn’t work out. Tolvanen could have gone to OHL Oshawa, but decided to try his luck against men in the KHL instead. In the short-term, it looked like a great decision: Tolvanen was named rookie of the month twice and played in the KHL All-Star Game. His 19 goals tied for tops on Jokerit, while his 36 points put him second to Nicklas Jensen. But not on NHL-sized rinks.
The past two times Tolvanen has played on NHL ice, it’s been a struggle. The 2017 world juniors were played in Montreal and Finland was so bad they had to play in the relegation series, where they stayed up by knocking off Latvia. Tolvanen had six points in six games, but three of those points came in the two games against Latvia.
In 2018, the world juniors shifted to Buffalo. Once again Finland underperformed (coaching was a disaster at both tourneys) and once again Tolvanen struggled to rise to the top, scoring just one goal in five games. Once again, NHL ice.
When the Olympics came around however, Tolvanen was back on top. He scorched the field for nine points in five games, helping Finland to the quarterfinal, where they lost 1-0 to Canada. The ice surface in South Korea? Same as the KHL.
I’ve probably beaten my point into the ground enough here. Tolvanen needs to learn how to play on NHL ice and with Milwaukee, he’ll get that opportunity. Sure, it would be more comfortable for Tolvanen to go back to Finland and yes, he would probably light up the KHL again because he’s a demon from the top of the faceoff circle and KHL checkers just can’t seem to get to him in time.
That won’t be the case in the NHL and, really, it might not be the case in the AHL, either. Tolvanen will face strong, hungry competition in Milwaukee and he’ll have to learn to get his nose dirty if he wants to keep ringing up offense.
The Predators do not need to rush this kid. Nashville is already one of the best teams in the league and a Stanley Cup contender. Tolvanen’s not a checker or a penalty-killer; he’s a goal-scorer. And if he can’t produce at the NHL level yet, then the AHL is the place to be.
It might not be fun, it might take Tolvanen out of his comfort zone – but sometimes that’s the best path for a prospect.