On a brisk Sunday afternoon at Allstate Arena, the visiting Milwaukee Admirals defeated the Chicago Wolves 5-4 in a seven round shootout. In the grand scheme of NEFHL, this game meant very little, but for the Edmonton Oilers, this was a meaningful game, indeed. It was an opportunity to scout top prospect, Eeli Tolvanen, drafted fifteenth overall by the Oilers in the 2017 NEFHL draft. Tolvanen failed to make the NHL Predators out of camp, and was assigned to the Milwaukee Admirals of AHL. The catch, though, is that Tolvanen has a clause in his contract that allows him to return to Helesingin Jokerit of the KHL if he appears in ten AHL games. If he returns to the KHL, he will be ineligible to play in the NHL for the remainder of the season. Last season Tolvanen set a KHL record for goals and points by an under-twenty, with 19 goals and 36 points.
Sunday’s game was Tolvanen’s seventh, and he came into the night with 1 goal and 3 assists. Early in the game, he appeared reluctant to shoot, moving the puck more than was expected. In the first period, a slick pass from the right wing board, near the red line, to the left circle resulted in his team’s first goal, on the power play. With seconds left in the second period, he received the primary assist on a game tying power play goal. In the third period of what was a back and forth game all day, he appeared to turn it up a notch, laying out a couple of big hits, and notching his third assist of the night on another power play goal that would send the game into overtime. Tolvanen saw heavy usage on the power play.
In overtime, Tolvanen’s game really began to shine. The extra space created by the four-on-four and, later, a four-on-three, allowed him to find the space he is most comfortable with, floating above the circles and setting up to fire hard shots on goal and fluidly moving the puck between his teammates. Seeing the contrast in his play makes clear why the Predators thought he would be best served by spending at least a few weeks finding his way around the smaller North American ice surface. He would shoot third in the shootout, failing to score on the attempt.
Tolvanen was one of the smoothest and fastest skaters on the ice. On defense, he was mostly quiet, primarily playing the puck with the stick, and avoiding contact unless absolutely necessary. He did not make any major errors on defense, nor did he give up the puck in his own end. He communicated well with his teammates on the ice and, perhaps more importantly, seemed to be talking at length with his teammates on the bench and smiling. He had four shots and three assists on the night, and was awarded the third star of the game.
His three point night brings him to six points in seven games, with three games to go before the Predators have a very difficult decision to make. One can see the logic behind sending the nineteen year old to Milwaukee, despite the numbers he generated in the KHL. His positioning was not bad, but you could sense that at times he still felt constrained, particularly when all ten skaters were in one end. Given his clear talent, most visible on the power play and in overtime, it is hard to see how the Predators can take the risk of him potentially returning to the KHL, unless they have a firm commitment from him to spend a few more weeks with the team prior to being recalled. It would seem to defy logic that they would play a high stakes game of chicken, particularly with Zac Rinaldo holding down a fourth line job in Nashville at the moment. It seems there should be a spot for Tolvanen to play bottom six minutes, while also contributing on the power play. Unless the Predators decide to play games with his playing time, which seems like an even riskier move, we should know one way or the other in the next week to ten days.
Joonas Lyytinen, who was claimed as a free agent by the Oilers in 2014, was a healthy scratch.