Are Predators wise in demoting hyped prospect Tolvanen?

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After absorbing the highlights and the hype from his spellbinding start in the KHL, it was frustrating to see Eeli Tolvanen‘s first run with the Nashville Predators end with such a whimper.

You can only fault him so much, as he didn’t really get much of a chance to prove himself. Tolvanen barely averaged more than 12 minutes of ice time over the three regular-season games with the Predators, failing to score a goal or an assist. Despite what sometimes felt like a revolving door of forwards at depth positions, Tolvanen didn’t play a single shift during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It’s difficult to suss out how much of that is on Tolvanen – whose game likely needs some polish outside, aside from sniping – and how much of the blame goes to Peter Laviolette (who, as an NHL head coach, is required to cast a suspicious eye on all rookies*).

With those growing pains in mind, maybe it shouldn’t be too big of a surprise that the Predators demoted Tolvanen to the AHL on Wednesday, although it is a little surprising that he didn’t receive an extra look or two to close out training camp.

After all, the thinking goes, wouldn’t the 19-year-old be better off enjoying a featured role with the Milwaukee Admirals, rather than scrapping for minutes and possibly finding himself as an occasional healthy scratch with the big club?

Well, it’s not necessarily that simple.

Let’s get into some of the deeper details.

A different form of 10-game cut-off: In most cases, an NHL team faces a conundrum: either demote a player or risk burning a year off of their entry-level contracts for a weak return. The Edmonton Oilers’ blunders with Jesse Puljujarvi remind us that a team can recklessly squander what could be the best “bang for your buck” years of a player’s time.

Taking advantage of that “entry-level slide” can be especially appealing when a team is able to assign a player to the AHL, rather than the junior level or overseas.

That would seem to be the case with Tolvanen, yet that turns out to not be true. As The Athletic’s Adam Vingan and TSN’s Bob McKenzie have reported, Tolvanen’s contract features a clause that would allow him to play in Europe if he reaches 10 games played at the AHL level.

With that in mind, the Predators would relinquish quite a bit of control over Tolvanen’s near future if they allow him to play in the KHL, or some other European league. He wouldn’t receive much more exposure to North American rinks if that happened, but most importantly, the Predators would forfeit a certain level of control over when Tolvanen could play for them again.

If I were running the Predators, I’d prefer to keep him around the big club.

It shouldn’t be that tough to find a fit: Look, it’s plausible that there would be times when a low-end, veteran grinder would be a better fit for the Predators’ lineup than Tolvanen. Overall, though, it’s tough to imagine that Tolvanen couldn’t benefit Nashville with his game-breaking talents, even if he’s a work in progress. Would you really rather have Zac Rinaldo or Miikka Salomaki on the ice instead of Tolvanen?

One area where you can make an especially strong argument for Tolvanen is on the power play.

The Predators have some fantastic talent offensively, yet their strength on defense can be a curse in disguise when it comes to the man advantage. Consider the shot distribution: Roman Josi (71 SOG on PP) and P.K. Subban (56 SOG on PP) topped all Predators in that regard, with only Filip Forsberg firing at a comparable rate (46 PP SOG, but while being limited to 67 games).

Maybe Tolvanen could be a lot like Sam Gagner was during a very successful year with Columbus: a highly specialized shooter on the power play. Racking up points that way could help the Predators go from results that are acceptable, but not very exciting, to a power play unit that could count as another strength for a real contender out West.

Loading up: You never know how wide your window to compete really is, so while preserving Tolvanen’s cheapest years has an undeniable lure, there are some significant reasons to just try to make it work with him in 2018-19.

For one thing, taking advantage of Tolvanen’s rookie contract now could allow the Predators to really load up. With ample space to work with – Cap Friendly puts them at more than $8.7M – Nashville could target a deluxe rental like Mark Stone (or, amusingly, maybe Matt Duchene?). In such a scenario, Tolvanen could step into a spot if Nashville needed to package, say, Craig Smith in a hypothetical trade.


Again, the threat of Tolvanen heading overseas looms large in these considerations. How arduous would the process be to get him back to North America? Would Tolvanen develop “bad habits” away from the club’s more watchful eyes? The situation seems tricky enough that it might just be preferable to hope that he figures things out, earns Laviolette’s trust, and pays immediate dividends instead.

Overall, these are good problems for an already talent-rich team like the Predators to have. It’s unusual for a late first-rounder of such a recent draft (30th in 2017) to force the issue so soon.

Regardless, Tolvanen’s situation remains a tricky one for Nashville. If they get this all right, the rewards could indeed be rich.

* – Though, I’d credit Laviolette for being more willing to trust players than former Predators coach Barry Trotz. Would Trotz have given Filip Forsberg and Kevin Fiala the same amount of leeway so early on in their respective careers? As smart a coach as Trotz is, I’d lean toward “No.”

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.