Predators prospect Tolvanen motivated after slipping in Draft

Forward, 18, selected No. 30 in 2017, has impressed in KHL

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / Staff Writer

BUFFALO — Right wing Eeli Tolvanen has always had a passion for scoring goals in different ways since the day he began playing hockey as a 3-year-old in Vihit, Finland.

“It was just working hard after every practice, and shooting pucks in my backyard,” he said.

That effort is paying off for Tolvanen, who is on pace to become the highest-scoring 18-year-old player in the 10-year history of the Kontinental Hockey League, playing for Jokerit. Tolvanen is currently tied with Evgeny Kuznetsov (Washington Capitals) for the league record with 32 points (17 goals, 15 assists) in 39 games.

He’s been named KHL rookie of the month twice, and KHL rookie of the week six times.

Only three other players in KHL history have scored 18 or more points at his age: Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis Blues), Kirill Kaprizov (Minnesota Wild) and Pavel Buchnevich (New York Rangers).

“My favorite shot is a one-timer from right half-wall,” Tolvanen said.

The knack for scoring with regularity at a young age had Tolvanen No. 8 on NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of North American skaters eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft. He was labeled a skilled forward with first-line potential and received excellent grades for his shot release and ability to shoot without getting set.

“He creates opportunities on almost every shift and his first step and speed make him very difficult to cover,” said David Gregory of NHL Central Scouting. “He has an excellent release and multiple shot types, the traits of a pure goal scorer.”

Some uncertainty over his future after failing to meet admission standards at Boston College may have played a part in his dropping to the Nashville Predators at No. 30 in the draft.

“The attraction to him was his goal-scoring ability,” Predators assistant general manager Paul Fenton said. “It’s so hard to find natural goal scorers and the way Eeli releases the puck was the big attraction.

“There aren’t many guys in the NHL that can score from the top of the circle with a shot off the rush. It’s a rarity in our game right now. We like the accuracy, the velocity and release he has. It gives him the potential to be able to score in a variety of ways once he does turn professional.”

The Predators had no problem with Tolvanen’s decision to play for Jokerit in the KHL this season to continue his development after plans of attending Boston College didn’t work out.

“I can’t speak to why he wasn’t drafted until No. 30, so was I surprised? Absolutely,” said Craig Button, TSN director of scouting and former NHL general manager. “The Predators are unbelievably fortunate to get him.”

Fenton said the Predators have been watching with great enthusiasm the development of their top prospect this season.

“We’ll certainly entertain (the option of having him play with the Predators) at the end of the year when he’s done with the KHL season,” Fenton said. “Our intention is to have him come over here as soon as possible.”

If his first stop isn’t with the Predators, it likely will be with their American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee.

“I think I’m ready to play in the NHL,” Tolvanen said. “I think the KHL has helped improve my game and I’ve watched and played against good players like Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk. It’s easier to make the transition back to North America if that’s the decision.”

Tolvanen had a goal and five assists in five games for Finland at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship, and was an offensive threat each time he stepped on the ice. He hit the goalpost numerous times.

“Getting drafted late motivated me; I was kind of getting frustrated because it was late in the first round, but it doesn’t matter anymore because Nashville is the best place to play hockey,” Tolvanen said. “The team and the fans are great. I’m pumped to go there as soon as possible.”

Tolvanen was selected in the first round (No. 17) of the 2016 Canadian Hockey League import draft by Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League but chose to play two seasons in Sioux City of the United States Hockey League.

BUFFALO, NY - DECEMBER 26: Henri Jokiharju #28 of Finland celebrates his goal against Canada with Eeli Tolvanen #20 during the second period at KeyBank Center on December 26, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)

“I remember the first time that I saw him play,” Greg Rajanen of NHL Central Scouting said. “He scored two goals off the rush with laser wrist shots; ‘Wow’ plays. The goalie didn’t move on either shot.”

Tolvanen had 38 points (17 goals, 21 assists) in 49 games and was named to the USHL All-Rookie Team in 2015-16. He had 54 points (30 goals, 24 assists) and 246 shots on goal in 52 games and was named to the USHL First All-Star Team last season.

“If you get a player who’s a one-trick pony, and I don’t mean that in a negative sense, it becomes easier to shut him down,” Button said. “Eeli becomes very difficult to shut down because he can attack to score in different ways.”