When the Predators selected Dante Fabbro and Eeli Tolvanen in the first round of the 2016 and 2017 NHL Drafts, respectively, the organization knew the teenagers likely wouldn't be difference makers overnight.
With the exception of a rare few, hockey players need time to develop before turning into the everyday contributors clubs hope they'll become.
Fabbro, once Nashville's top defensive prospect, and Tolvanen, one of most-hyped forward draftees in franchise history, are in the midst of those processes, and even though both experienced growing pains during the shortened 2020-21 season with the Preds, the organization knows those two are still very much a part of the future.
In the case of Tolvanen, the 22-year-old showed he has what it takes to play at this level on a nightly basis. After two full seasons of development with the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals - with a couple of brief stops in Nashville previously - the Finnish forward recorded 11 goals and 22 points in 40 games for the Preds during the most recent campaign.
Six of those tallies - and 12 points - came on the power play, and Tolvanen provided a major boost to Nashville's man advantage, an area the group has constantly looked to improve over the past few seasons.
"It's been a steady progression for him to get back up to what we call 'NHL ready,' and finally we felt he was ready, we gave him a chance and he did a great job for us," Predators General Manager David Poile said of Tolvanen. "[He contributed] mostly on the power play, which was huge because [if there was] anything that was needed, that was probably it. He looks like he could be an elite player on the power play with his shot and his ability to score goals, which are very much [needed]."
Video: DAL@NSH: Tolvanen buries backhander for OT winner
Like so many Preds over the past season, Tolvanen suffered an injury as time wore on and missed two weeks in the middle of April. He got back into the lineup upon returning, but Tolvanen went scoreless and posted two points in the final eight contests of the regular season, and while he appeared in four of Nashville's six playoff games, he was held without a point.
Tolvanen's all-around game, especially in his own end, was much improved this season and a key reason he was afforded opportunities from Head Coach John Hynes and his staff. However, like every young player, Tolvanen still has room for improvement, and the Predators expect him to take on more responsibility when he returns in the fall.
"When John and I talk to Tolvy in his exit meeting, it's going to be about continuing to get bigger, stronger, as quick as [he] can get to be able to allow John to play him on a regular basis 5-on-5 and have success, to not make yourself vulnerable to being scratched," Poile said following the end of the postseason. "It's still a work in progress, but again, in terms of what I see for the future of our team, I'm betting that Tolvy is going to be a big player in our future… To me, everything is going in the right direction with Tolvy, he just needs to have a big summer of conditioning that [will] put him in a good spot coming back to training camp, and hopefully he'll be a regular player."
Also 22, Fabbro is in a similar spot to his teammate. After seeing his first NHL action in the spring of 2019 following his collegiate career at Boston University, Fabbro earned a full-time spot on Nashville's blue line during the 2019-20 campaign with five goals and 11 points in 64 games. Over the past five months, Fabbro bested his total from last year by one point in just 40 games of action, but the British Columbia native did not make an appearance in Nashville's first-round series with the Hurricanes in May.
However, instead of sulking, Poile and Hynes were more than impressed with how the young defender handled himself under the circumstances, and they also have high expectations for Fabbro once more.
"I really believe in Dante," Poile said. "I think he's going to get back to being more than a regular player for us; he's going to be an important player for us. He's very young, he's got a great attitude and it's really difficult when…you're scratched. That really brings up the character of a person, and Dante never put his head down and never stopped working… He's just learned a lot here, and he doesn't want to be a spectator. I'm betting that he'll become a big part of our team next year."
Video: DET@NSH: Fabbro wrists one from the point for a goal
"He hit a little bit of adversity, but adversity reveals character," Hynes said of Fabbro. "He didn't get an opportunity to play in the playoffs, but I had several conversations with him. I mean, this kid's a great teammate. He understood the situation, that his play needed to be better, the specific areas that needed to be better, and all he wanted to do is win. He was going to stay ready, he worked hard with the taxi squad, he met with [Assistant Coach] Todd Richards several times, so I think when you look at the character of the player, as a young guy, his reaction to the adversity [was impressive]."
Hynes says Fabbro is a good skater and moves the puck well, but as a defenseman with "average size," the Preds want to see Fabbro's speed, quickness and strength get to "another level" to be able to compete against some of the top players in the Central Division.
The offseason provides necessary time for players to regroup and refocus mentally, but summertime training is often where the most notable improvements are made. For Tolvanen and Fabbro, the next few months hold plenty of importance, but the Predators know what those two are capable of - and they want them to show it come October.
"He's a very motivated player," Hynes said of Fabbro. "When you look at the way he handled the situation as a teammate and a guy in the playoffs, he understood he needed to be better in [certain] areas. He's gone home here with a clear plan of what he needs to work on, and he's leaving here a very motivated guy. If he gets better in those areas, and he follows the plan and puts in some hard work in the summer, he's going to come in and he's going to be a guy that we can rely on, and he's going to continue to be an important part of our organization and our team."