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VOL. 42 | NO. 8 | Friday, February 23, 2018

Young Olympian might be spark Preds need

By John Glennon

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Eeli Tolvanenl, left, of Finland celebrates a goal with Sami Lepisto during the second period of the preliminary round of the men’s hockey game against Norway at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, last week. Tolvanenl was drafted by the Predators last year.

-- Ap Photo/Frank Franklin Ii

As impressive a performance as the Predators have put on through three quarters of the regular season, they’ve looked in recent weeks like a team in need of a boost.

The Preds trailed during large portions of seven consecutive games during one stretch, managing to win just three. It was a surprising run of inconsistency, compared to how the team had played through the bulk of the season.

So just what might jump-start this team before the playoffs?

It may be an acquisition made prior to the NHL’s Feb. 26 trade deadline, a top-nine forward who would add to an already-powerful offensive arsenal.

It might be the return of veteran center Mike Fisher, who’s scheduled to play his first game this season right around the beginning of March.

But an increasingly intriguing possibility is that the Preds might get a spark from an 18-year-old who’s never played a professional game in North America.

Finnish forward Eeli Tolvanen, the Preds’ first-round draft pick of 2017, has the kind of goal-scoring prowess the Predators haven’t seen in a prospect since the highly skilled Alexander Radulov made his NHL debut at 20 in 2006.

Tolvanen has piled up points at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, just as he has this season for his Jokerit team in Russia’s KHL.

“His shot is his biggest weapon, but sometimes you underestimate how much vision he has,” says Paul Fenton, Predators assistant general manager.

“I think his hockey sense is also probably at the top of the charts, especially for a young guy like that. That’s another big thing he has. He has the sense to play the game at a mature level, where things are slowing down for him.”

The Predators wouldn’t be able to sign Tolvanen to an entry-level contract until the end of the KHL playoffs, which begin for his Jokerit team on March 3 with a best-of-seven, first-round series.

But Tolvanen appears well worth the wait, considering what he’s done this season.

In his first four Olympic games, Tolvanen has collected a tournament-high nine points for Finland. He posted a goal and three assists in Finland’s opener against German, added two goals in the Finns’ win over Norway and contributed three assists in a win against South Korea.

“Eeli is a great player with an unbelievable shot,” Finland coach Lauri Marjamaki told Olympic media in South Korea. “He brings us so much; his open-minded game and fearless (approach) and the whole atmosphere is excited because Eeli is on our team.”

Added Finnish captain and former NHL player Lasse Kukkonen: “It’s amazing. It’s a pleasure. It’s a privilege to be on the same team with him, and I get a chance to enjoy watching him play.”

The only reason to pump the brakes regarding Tolvanen is that by the time his KHL season ends, he will already have played a lot of hockey for an 18-year-old.

While it’s true Tolvanen scorched the KHL in the early going – he’s already broken the league’s points record for a player younger than 20 – the 5-10, 185-pound forward cooled off considerably in the latter portion of his season.

When Tolvanen returns from the Olympics for the first of his final two regular-season games, he’ll be seeking to snap an 18-game goal-scoring drought in the KHL.

“He’s going to have had a long year with all the things mentioned – (the KHL), world juniors, now the Olympics, now coming back to play two more regular-season games and then the playoffs,” Predators general manager David Poile acknowledges.

“We can’t get ahead of ourselves. We’d like to talk to him. If he’d like to come over, that would be a distinct possibility. But we have to see what happens the next month with all the hockey he’s going to play.”

Tolvanen isn’t the only former Predators first-round draft pick whose stock is rising.

Defenseman Dante Fabbro, Nashville’s initial selection in the 2016 draft, is having the kind of season that could see him decide to turn professional sooner rather than later. Through the first 32 games of his sophomore year at Boston University, the 6-1, 192-pound Fabbro has already compiled 26 points – tied for second-best on the team and eight more points than he totaled in 36 games as a freshman.

He spent part of his season helping Canada’s national junior team capture the gold medal at the World Junior Championship, battling through a foot injury in the process.

“He’s just another guy that has that hockey sense we look for, that spark we look for, that will be able to take him to a successful level,” Fenton adds. “He’s ready to adapt to everything. He’s had some injuries this year that have hindered him a little bit, but he’s been able to fight through. I think that just shows what type pro he’s going to be.”

Fenton says he believes Fabbro’s smooth all-round game will at some point be a good fit in Nashville, where Preds coach Peter Laviolette places a high emphasis on defensemen playing a big part in the offense.

“He’s a very, very smart puck mover and he’s very detailed in his own end,” Fenton adds. “He does the right things. He advances the puck.

“That’s the new NHL game, which we’ve tried to structure our defense on for a long, long time. He just fits that type of mold going forward here that we think we will be successful, because you spend much less time in your end.”

So just when will Fabbro choose to go pro?

Should he go in that direction following this college season, Fabbro could wind up playing for Nashville’s American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee. In theory, he could also be called up to the Predators’ roster.

But different college players have different timetables when it comes to turning professional.

Former Preds defenseman Ryan Suter, for instance, spent just one year in college, while two other former Nashville draft picks – forwards Blake Geoffrion and Jimmy Vesey – played four seasons at Wisconsin and Harvard, respectively.

“We’ll let him determine that,” Fenton adds. “We’ve never asked a kid to come out of college before – that’s just not our policy. There are personal preferences with their family. So, for us, we’ll let them tell us if they want to come.”

Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.

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