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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.