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Eeli Tolvanen takes slower path to NHL

Teenager opted to leave Finland, play in USHL to boost chances in draft

by Adam Kimelman @NHLAdamK / NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

Every Thursday, NHL.com will look ahead to the 2017 NHL Draft with an in-depth profile on one of its top prospects.

Eeli Tolvanen could be playing professionally in Liiga, the top league in his native Finland.

However, the top 2017 NHL Draft prospect understood that to reach his ultimate goal, he had to leave his homeland and take a slower path to the pros.

"I'm a smaller guy and I might not get the chance to play in Liiga," Tolvanen said. "The USHL is a good league to develop my game and get bigger and stronger there."

The decision has worked well for Tolvanen, who is No. 8 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2017 draft.

He's grown to 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, and this season was tied for third in the United States Hockey League with 30 goals and tied for eighth with 54 points. He also tied for the team lead with six points (two goals, four assists) in six games for Finland at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship. 

"He's got excellent skill and hockey sense," Central Scouting's David Gregory said. "Plays the game at a high pace and is very tough to contain. He is dangerous offensively creating opportunities with a quick shot that he can release on the fly. He is very good at finding the open man with a tape-to-tape pass. He understands the game very well and can be responsible is all zones. He scored at over a point per game in a league that is tough to score in."

Tolvanen developed playing in the Blues organization, near where he was born in Vihti, Finland.

He had been a star at each level in the Blues system, but realized that his size could hold him back from continuing to climb the hockey ladder. That's why he signed with Sioux City of the USHL on April 14, 2015. It wasn't an easy decision, bit Tolvanen said he was able to adjust fairly quickly.

"First few months I was in high school, that was tough for me," he said. "The school was hard. All my teammates helped me a lot with my English and that stuff. Now it's easier to come here and you know all the players and you can speak English."

He had 38 points (17 goals, 21 assists) in 49 games last season and was named to the USHL All-Rookie Team. This season he's been the key offensive player on the top team in the league.

Video: NHL Central Scouting's Gregory on 2017 Draft class

"It's very difficult to play in this league as a 16-year-old, and he made the adjustment really quickly," Sioux City general manager Mark LeRose said. "He skates well; he really doesn't get hit because he's smart with the puck. What he's really good at is getting open and being able to release his shot from anywhere in the offensive zone. He came into the league and it really wasn't a difficult transition for him, surprisingly."

While Tolvanen's best assets are his offensive abilities, LeRose said he understands how being better defensively can give him even more offensive opportunities.

"He has brought into our system," LeRose said. "Our team has the lowest goals-against average in the league (2.08); that's a team stat and he's part of that. I'm not going to say he's defense-first, but he is responsible defensively. It's not his passion to play defense, his passion is to score goals and create offense. But he does understand, especially this time of year with the playoffs starting, he can create offense from defense, so if he's good defensively he's going to get the puck in transition quicker."

Tolvanen's next step after the draft is Boston College. Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League selected him with the 17th pick of the 2016 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, but he sees college another chance to add size and strength as well as develop his skills.

"I'm not a bigger guy in the league so I need to build my size, and I think the college route is the best option for me," he said. "There's not that much games so I can practice a lot on weekdays. I think that's the best option for me."

In two seasons LeRose has seen Tolvanen put that foundation of getting bigger and stronger into place.

"When he's not feeling it offensively he will go to his backup game and be physical and hit guys and work out his frustrations," LeRose said. "When he does that he's a powerful hitter, because he's such a strong skater. It doesn't show up in his game every night because it doesn't have to. … I'm not saying he's a brute or a beast but he does have a physical element to his game."

Tolvanen will have fellow Finland natives Julius Mattila and Jesper Mattila with him at Boston College next season. He'll also have family on this side of the Atlantic. One of his older brothers, Atte, has spent the past two seasons playing goalie at Northern Michigan University.

In fact, it's because Atte plays goalie that Eeli has been able to develop as a forward. Oldest brother Joona, 25, plays professionally in Finland as a forward and defenseman. Growing up he needed someone to play goalie, and that became Atte, 22. So when Eeli, who turns 18 on April 22, came around, he could do whatever he wanted.

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