Remember the name: Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen impresses for Finland

Nashville’s 2017 1st-round pick has 6 points in 2 games

Remember the name: Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen impresses for Finland
Eeli Tolvanen, left, celebrates one of his two goals with Sami Lepisto during Finland’s 5-1 win over Norway in preliminary-round action at the 2018 Winter Olympics on Friday. © Frank Franklin II / The Associated Press

By Mike Shulman, CBC Sports

While Finland’s most recognizable hockey talents Pekka Rinne, Tuukka Rask, Patrik Laine and Aleksander Barkov may be stuck plying their trade in the NHL an ocean away from Pyeongchang, Finnish teen Eeli Tolvanen is making a name for himself in their absence.

The Nashville Predators’ first-round pick from last year’s NHL draft (30th overall) has three goals and three assists in two games at these Winter Games.

And if the pressure of filling the void of the team’s missing stars is getting to the 18-year-old left winger, it isn’t showing.

“I like scoring every game, so that’s a big thing for me,” said the native of Vihti, Finland, after potting two goals and firing six shots on net in his team’s 5-1 win over Norway on Friday.

“I don’t know, I just go out there and have fun, and try to play my game.”

The diminutive goal scorer — who stands five-foot-10 and weighs in at 181 pounds — isn’t just putting up empty-calorie stats. His lightning-fast release to put Finland up 3-1 over Germany on Thursday left goalie Danny aus den Birken completely bewildered. Tolvanen finished the game with a goal and three assists in the team’s 5-2 win and his Olympic debut.

“Eeli is a great player with an unbelievable shot,” Finland coach Lauri Marjamaki said Friday. “He brings us so much; his open-minded game and fearless [approach] and the whole atmosphere is excited because Eeli is on our team.”

Tolvanen said he has also turned to the team’s veterans, in particular captain and former Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Lasse Kukkonen, for support.

“He is a legend — a great captain,” Tolvanen said of Kukkonen, who he sits beside in the dressing room. “All over this tournament, he has been a big help for me and all the young guys with us. How to act here.

‘Don’t feel pressure’

“We have a really good team and we have a lot of leaders, so I don’t feel any pressure because of that. I just go out and enjoy it.”

And Kukkonen, in turn, has been amazed by the young Finn’s performance.

“It’s a pleasure,” he said after the win over Norway. “It’s a privilege to be on the same team with him and I get a chance to enjoy watching him play.

“Everybody can see he’s enjoying the hockey, he’s playing the hockey that everybody wants to play, having fun and doing the things he loves out there.”

Finland (2-0) is slated to battle Sweden (2-0) for Group C supremacy on Sunday. But regardless of Finland’s results at these Games, this likely won’t be the last time North American fans hear about Tolvanen this year.

The Predators prospect has excelled playing for Jokerit of the KHL this season, scoring 17 goals and 34 points to break Evgeny Kuznetsov’s league record for points by an under-20 player.

And Nashville’s general manager, David Poile, hinted Tuesday that he could join the team for its NHL playoff run.

“We’ve talked to his agent and he’s going to have a long year … Olympics and more regular-season games and playoffs with Jokerit, so we can’t get ahead of ourselves,” Poile told the Predators’ website.

“We have to see what happens with all the hockey he has left to play.”