With the likes of Laine and Aho gone, the defending champs will rely on youth for scoring.
If Finland has any chance of repeating as world junior champions, the young lions are going to need offense. Goals were easy to come by in 2016 with Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho and Jesse Puljujarvi lighting things up like a pinball machine, but the best-case scenario is they get one of those players back: Puljujarvi. Also, Mikko Rantanen and Kasperi Kapanen have aged out. But if you’re looking for goals, Eeli Tolvanen is your guy.
The highly coveted 2017 draft prospect is playing in his second season for Sioux City in the USHL and filling nets, just as he did in his rookie campaign. “He’s a game changer,” said one NHL scout. “He scores at will, and he scores big-time goals. His skill creates power plays, and he has so many intangibles. Hits a one-timer better than anybody. He gets it off like Brett Hull.”
Tolvanen was Finland’s most dynamic player this summer when the team played a series of exhibition games against Team USA, Sweden and Canada. He had already helped Finland to gold at the world under-18s, leading the 2016 tournament in goals along the way. His temper can be a friend or foe, depending on how he harnesses it, but the 5-foot-10, 170-pound bulldog doesn’t back down to anyone. “When I was smaller I used to play with my brothers in the backyard,” Tolvanen said. “That was fun. They taught me a lot, playing against older guys. Definitely that’s one of the biggest reasons I’m here.”
And Tolvanen’s brothers were no scrubs. Joona, 24, plays pro back in Finland, while Atte, 22, is the starting goalie for NCAA Northern Michigan. Eeli is committed to Boston College, even with OHL Oshawa doggedly pursuing his services. “Boston is a nice city and BC has a pretty good coach – Jerry York has won, like, a thousand games in college,” Tolvanen said. “So that was the biggest reason: the coach. The school is good and a few Finnish guys (twins Jesper and Julius Mattila) are there, so I can’t wait for that.”
And while Boston College doesn’t usually play Northern Michigan, Tolvanen was willing to predict what would happen if he met his older bro in the Frozen Four tournament. “We’re gonna win that, of course,” he said. “But that would be nice.”
Before that happens, however, Tolvanen must take on a big role at the world juniors. Finland has a pretty impressive defense corps, led by Vancouver first-rounder Olli Juolevi and Detroit pick Vili Saarijarvi, while Veini Vehvilainen returns in net. Up front is the big question, since the best players will be younger. Along with Tolvanen, there’s another hot 2017 prospect in power forward Kristian Vesalainen – who was also very active at the summer tournament in Michigan. Florida Panthers 2016 first-rounder Henrik Borgstrom is also one to watch, as the center is off to an excellent freshman season at the University of Denver.
But all eyes should be on Tolvanen, because if Finland is going to make the jump from its standard dark-horse position to medallist, it’ll need him filling the net. Don’t bet against it.