When Eeli Tolvanen fell to the 30th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, he didn’t act disappointed. "There was some speculation I might go a little earlier, but it doesn't matter right now," the forward said after being selected by the Nashville Predators.
At the time, Tolvanen didn’t even know where he was going to spend the 2017-18 season. The teenager had planned to attend Boston College, but he failed to meet the school’s admission standards. The uncertainty over his short-term future was part of why his draft stock lost some of its shine in the months leading up to the big day.
Tolvanen nearly dropped out of the first round as a result, but he hasn’t skipped a beat since returning to his native Finland to play for Jokerit in the KHL, where he’s fit right in despite his age.
Now thriving in the world’s second-best league as an 18-year-old, the Predators prospect is already beginning to prove the doubters were wrong. He never should’ve fallen as far as he did. But for Nashville, those stumbles are looking like a blessing. Here’s more on Tolvanen’s breakout season.
The best 18-year-old KHL player ever
Tolvanen has a real claim to be the greatest 18-year-old player in the KHL’s 10-year history. On Monday night, the winger tied Evgeny Kuznetsov’s league record for points in an age-18 season with 32 in 39 games.
Only five players have ever recorded 18 or more points in the KHL at that age: Tolvanen, Kuznetsov, Vladimir Tarasenko, Kirill Kaprizov, and Pavel Buchnevich. Consider where each of those players is now.
Kuznetsov and Tarasenko are averaging a point-per-game or better in the NHL. Buchnevich isn’t far behind with 22 points in 30 games for the Rangers. And Kaprizov is still in the KHL, but the Wild prospect has racked up 33 points in 32 games with CSKA Moscow as a 20-year-old.
So we’re talking about two of the best scorers in the NHL, another very good NHL player, and an elite prospect putting up big numbers in Russia. No matter how you slice it, this is a special group to be a part of.
And Tolvanen has had a better age-18 season than any of them.
A potential Olympic star
Another interesting aspect of this season for Tolvanen is his potential inclusion on the Finnish team for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Assuming the KHL doesn’t try to find a way to ban non-Russian players from representing their countries, Tolvanen seems likely to be one of the top players on a Finland team that can’t mine the NHL.
That means the action in Pyeongchang could be a coming out party of sorts for Tolvanen and young Finnish defenseman Miro Heiskanen, who was the No. 4 overall pick this year by the Stars. They could be key cogs on an Olympic medal contender before riding that momentum toward starting their NHL careers.
Last year at the World Juniors, Tolvanen racked up six points in six games despite Finland’s disappointing ninth-place finish. The country’s senior national team has won two silver medals and four bronze medals in the Olympics since 1988, but has never won an ice hockey gold medal. It might be a long shot, but Tolvanen would become a national legend if he helps make that happen.
Why Predators fans should be excited
Add up the entirety of Tolvanen’s resume and you start to wonder how this kid fell all the way to No. 30. One of the players drafted ahead of him, Shane Bowers at No. 27, has already been traded. Sure, it’s much too early to say anything definitive about a bunch of teenage hockey players, but there are surely some teams out there second-guessing their decision not to select Tolvanen.
That’s all great news for the Predators, who narrowly fell short of winning their first Stanley Cup just six months ago but still managed to land an elite prospect with their first-round pick. A franchise long built on defense suddenly has an impressive core of forwards in Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson, Kevin Fiala, Kyle Turris, and, eventually, Tolvanen.
It may take some time for him to reach Nashville — at the very least, until the end of the current KHL season in the spring — but the Olympics should be another prime chance to check in on him. Based on what we’ve seen and heard so far, he’ll likely impress.