February 03, 2018

The steal of the 2017 draft – Eeli Tolvanen looks NHL ready

Eeli Tolvanen has set the KHL on fire this season. PHOTO: BILDBYRÅN

In European hockey, a huge debate is always tied to the question whether the most promising players should move overseas or keep on developing at home. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, you can argue that many players developed very well in the Canadian major junior system, other tried that route, but failed, and another group of players probably did the right thing in developing at home and moving to the NHL as a more mature person and hockey player.

And then we have Eeli Tolvanen. The Finnish forward had played his whole life at home before moving to the United States Hockey League when he was still very young. “We are excited about signing Eeli to a USHL tender. He is just finishing up a fantastic year for the Espoo Blues and headed off to represent Finland in international competition.” said then-Musketeers Head Coach Jay Varady on April 2015. “Eeli is a player with a special skill set, and we are excited to add him to our organization and help with his development as a player.”

Tolvanen went on to have two excellent seasons in the USHL, scoring 92 points in 101 regular season games and being named to the first All-Star team of the league in his second year. He also committed to the Boston University to play in the NCAA later on, but then something changed as he wasn’t admitted to the college due to bad grades.

At a moment when most of his European colleagues dream about moving to North America, Tolvanen crossed the Atlantic to start his professional career with Jokerit Helsinki of the KHL – in spite of being drafted by the Oshawa Generals of the OHL.

After his second season, he was drafted by the Nashville Predators with the 30th overall pick, the second-last of the first round. He was projected to get drafted earlier, but his short-term problems probably caused some teams to focus on other players.

In the summer, Tolvanen had some decisions he had to make. He could potentially sign with the Predators and be eligible to play in the AHL, like the 31st overall pick Klim Kostin did with the St. Louis Blues. Instead, he chose another path.
“When I lost the chance to play in the NCAA, I was advised to listen to Jokerit. I was intrigued right away. The KHL is the best league in Europe. I didn’t have to think much about playing for Jokerit, I’m now playing for a strong team in a great league,” Tolvanen told Sport-Express journalist Igor Eronko after scoring a hat-trick in his first KHL game.

“A move to the CHL also has minuses, not only pluses,” he went on saying. “If you’re a leader, it’s great, but if you are not, hardly anyone can help you. It’s a good thing that [in the CHL] teams play more of an NHL style, due to the smaller ice surface. You have a chance to adapt. But in the KHL, you’re playing against men. There are no easy games. It’s the second-best league in the world, therefore playing here can’t be easy. It’s a great place where I can raise as a player, refine my game, become more of a universal player and improve all aspects of my game.”

The season isn’t over yet, but the move back home did work for Tolvanen. Not only he has beaten all kinds of records for a 19 year-old in the KHL, with his strong play he ensured himself of a spot in the lineup for the South Korea Olympics, being only one of the few elect players that will skate at the Olympic games and at the WJC in the same season.

With the KHL now stopped for the Olympics, Tolvanen has scored an impressive 17 goals and as many assists for 34 points in 47 games. This means he’s the second-best scorer on his team and is in the top-40 for the entire league. Big numbers for an 18 year-old, especially considering that the KHL is a low-scoring, veteran-first league. On top of that, he also skated at the All-Star Game in Astana and has been voted the league’s best rookie of the month twice. There aren’t many doubts that he will grab the Alexei Cherepanov award as the KHL best rookie this season.

In January, Tolvanen skated with Team Finland at the WJC. He played rather well there to, grabbing six points in five games, but Finland didn’t fare too well as they were defeated by the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals.

Meanwhile, people started to consider him the steal of the 2017 draft. The most interesting feat, however, is that he could have achieved a lot in his career even before playing his first shift in the big league.

At this point, it’s not determined when Tolvanen will actually cross the Atlantic ocean and land in Nashville. The talented forward has a 1+1 year contract with Jokerit.
“I can choose myself,” Tolvanen told Eronko. “Next year I can move to the NHL, but we’ll see, it’s early to think about it. We need to see how the season goes. If I have a good season, everything is possible, then probably it would be better for me to move overseas.”

At this point, though, Predators’ fans should be happy and look forward to the arrival of the next Finnish sensation this summer.

@AlexSerenRosso

Alessandro Seren Rosso alessandro.serenrosso@gmail.com
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