When the Nashville Predators were on the clock at pick No. 30 of the 2017 NHL draft, it’s presumably safe to say that general manager David Poile did not expect to see Eeli Tolvanen’s name still available on the draft board.
Projected as a top 15-pick, with top-10 and perhaps even top-five talent, Tolvanen’s fall to 30th overall was a mysterious one.
“We will never truly know why, yet it happens every year, a kid ranked high falls,” ISS Scouting Director Dennis MacInnis said. “With Eeli, the fact he has average size and lacks breakaway speed may have scared a few teams away. He was ranked 17th in our final rankings, and the fact he fell to 30 was surprising and may turn out to be one of the steals of the 2017 draft.”
“I think there could be a number of valid arguments on why he fell to 30th overall,” Future Considerations USHL Evaluator Jake VanBesien said. “I think it is a combination of teams finding, what they think, were better fits with different players before the 30th overall selection. (With) Eeli’s game being one dimensional and not as dynamic as some of the others who were selected before him, his offensive skill set has NHL written all over it. If he can figure out the rest, he will be in the NHL sooner rather than later.”
Tolvanen is perhaps the best offensive prospect the Predators have had since Alex Radulov was selected 15th overall back in 2004. Many pre-draft scouting reports have compared Tolvanen to St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko — lofty expectations to live up to, to say the least.
“I think that the Tarasenko comparison is definitely a fair comparison,” VanBesien said. “The offensive ability for Tolvanen somewhat mirrors that of the St. Louis Blues forward. Watching Tolvanen over the course of the last couple seasons in junior, it’s hard for me not to say that he is not somewhat his own player. With his game being as offensively heavy as it is, he focuses on getting pucks to the net and his strength is definitely his shot and offensive vision which allows his offensive numbers to be where they are.”
“Style-wise (he resembles) Michael Cammalleri,” MacInnis said. “(He) was never known for his size or speed, yet has almost 300 NHL goals.”
After two seasons in the USHL with Sioux City Musketeers, Tolvanen planned to attend Boston College this year. However, those plans fell through after not meeting the BC admissions requirements. Tolvanen then made the decision that the best choice for his development was to take his talents to the KHL, signing a one-year contract with Jokerit.
The move, a bold one at the time, appears to have absolutely been the right call for the 5-foot-10 winger. Tolvanen is currently on pace to destroy every KHL scoring record for an 18-year-old.
Through 19 games, Tolvanen has 21 points and 11 goals. He already owns the fourth-best KHL season by an 18-year-old, behind Evgeni Kuznetzov (32 points), Kirill Kaprizov (27 points) and Vladimir Tarasenko (24 points), respectively.
What makes Tolvanen’s season even more impressive is the fact that he’s accomplished this in just 19 games, whereas Kuznetzov (44), Kaprizov (53) and Tarasenko (43) all played more than double the amount of games. At his current pace, Tolvanen would have 48 points – easily breaking Kuznetzov’s KHL scoring record for an 18-year-old.
“Certainly (he’s) off to a great start with 11 goals in first 19 games, and this will be a big year for his development,” MacInnis said. “We are certainly seeing more 18- and 19-year-olds not only playing in the NHL, but contributing and playing major roles for respective teams.”
“I think his offensive skill set — specifically his shot — will translate to the NHL best,” VanBesien added. “His play in the offensive zone is seemingly second-to-none in the KHL based on his statistics. He definitely has the potential to be a productive NHL forward, especially when given time and space.”
For as good as Tolvanen has been in the KHL, many struggle with coming to terms that at just 18, Tolvanen is still a developmental player. However, this does rule out a fast track to the NHL for the Finnish phenom.
“I think that Tolvanen will have to be a sooner rather than later call-up/signee in the National Hockey League,” VanBesien said. “I’m not sure that there is any question that his offensive skill set is ready for the NHL. The thing that I question is the other phases, such as defensive zone play, the ability to back check effectively and the simple growing pains that come with the elite level of the NHL. If he can mature quickly, we’ll see him in the NHL in the near future.”
“His tremendous hockey IQ and goal scoring ability will help make that transition,” MacInnis added. “He does one thing exceptionally well and that’s score goals. (He’s) smart enough to find that soft spot and has a cannon that can beat any goaltender at any level.”
Make no mistake, Tolvanen has an NHL-ready shot right now; it is perhaps his best weapon. The area that most are in agreement he needs to improve before making the jump to the Preds roster, is his defense.
“Offensively, he is one of the top players in 2017 draft,” MacInnis said. “But he still has some learning to do about the game, defensively.”
“The area that I feel Tolvanven will need the most improvement on in order to make the jump is simply neutral/defensive zone play, as well as his physicality and strength in order to adapt to the NHL game,” Van Besien added. “Tolvanen will, also need to improve his attitude and demeanor when things do not exactly fall his way early on in his prospective NHL career. (He can) learn from and mature (both physically and mentally) with the growing pains that naturally come with the National Hockey League.”
No one can argue that Tolvanen is having a season for the ages over in the KHL. Many said it during the draft, and many are saying it now, the Nashville Predators could quite possibly have the steal of the 2017 NHL Draft.