There are about to be even more “maintenance days” in Music City.
In probably the most watched KHL game in the history of Nashville, Jokerit lost Game 6 of their Western Conference semifinal series to HC CSKA Moscow and, as a result, had their 2017-18 season come to an end.
Wishing defeat on someone adored by a fanbase is a rarity but, in this case, the Jokerit loss means Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen is free to sign and join the team that drafted him.
Since he fell to the Preds at 30th overall last summer, all he’s done is tie for the lead on his KHL team in goals (19), come in second in scoring (36 points), play in two outdoor games, represent his native Finland in the World Junior Championships, finish second in the entire Olympic field in scoring with nine points in five games, score the overtime winner to put his team into the second round of the KHL playoffs and play in the longest game in KHL history.
With his KHL season over, he is now allowed to sign with Nashville. It was reported Wednesday that he had agreed to terms with the Preds (and even proactively worked through all immigration issues) so he’s expected to join his NHL club soon, maybe even as early as Thursday’s home game against San Jose.
But where does he fit into the lineup? That’s the million dollar question. Not so much at this very moment as Peter Laviolette and the coaching staff have been giving full-time players much needed rest through “maintenance days” for a couple weeks now. It wouldn’t alarm anybody to see Scott Hartnell come out of the lineup on Tuesday to make room for Tolvanen, for example. But what about the post-season?
Obviously if the 18-year old winger comes in and lights the world on fire, you deal with it. But, if he plays the final seven games of the regular season and tallies three points and is relatively average looking, does the coaching staff really sit a seasoned veteran in the hopes that Tolvanen can find his scoring touch? Especially when that seasoned veteran has worn Nashville gold for the majority of the season and, therefore, gone through the wars and the battles with his teammates, all while Tolvanen was across the Atlantic? If there’s an injury — and there were plenty to go around during the run to the Stanley Cup Final last year — than the teenager will find his way into the playoff lineup, absolutely. But, in the event the team stays healthy, it might be tough if his cup of coffee in the regular season doesn’t result in frequent appearances on the scoresheet.
It’ll be interesting to see how Laviolette uses Tolvanen once he’s in the lineup. His shot is so lethal that it could be a serious weapon for Nashville. Most of his goals are scored from the right face off circle, like the three examples below.
So, basically, Steven Stamkos but on the opposite side of the ice.
Could Nashville use him on the fourth line to limit his minutes but also use him as a power play specialist? Given the amount of hockey he’s played this season between the KHL, the World Juniors, the Olympics and, eventually, the NHL, that might not be a bad way to get a feel for what he can bring to the table. It also would set him up to succeed, which is what you want to do with any young player. Plus, let’s face it, Nashville’s fourth line isn’t the prototypical “fourth line.” With guys like Colton Sissons, Mike Fisher, Austin Watson and Ryan Hartman on it, Tolvanen would have guys with offensive instincts to work with. Were that not the situation, a fourth line position would be a waste on a player of his caliber.
Recently, third line winger Calle Jarnkrok sustained a regular season-ending injury against the Jets on March 13. Could he just slide in there with Hartnell and Nick Bonino to see how he can produce with those guys? And, if Tolvanen fits in seamlessly there, is Jarnkrok pushed out — or onto the fourth line — when he’s ready to return?
Another question fans had when the report surfaced Wednesday was what number will he wear. With Jokerit, he’s donned number 20, which is taken by Miikka Salomaki and with the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL, he wore number 15, which is taken by Craig Smith. In Development Camp this past summer, however, he was issued number 68 which, of course, is still available. Will he keep that or choose another? It should be announced shortly.
Can he translate the success he’s had this season to the NHL? The common defense against European players is the smaller ice surface of the North American game. Aside from some re-acclamation, he shouldn’t have much of a problem as he played in the USHL for two seasons. In other words, he’s only one year removed from the smaller surface.
The next immediate push-back people love to give when tempering expectations for young players is their age and lack of experience. Once again, Tolvanen’s DNA doesn’t subscribe to that having played a full season against men, both in the second best league in the world and in the Olympics.
Will Tolvanen’s addition give the Predators yet another weapon to their Stanley Cup arsenal? We have two weeks to find out.
PHOTO CREDIT: Camryn Martz (used with permission from Penalty Box Radio)