Perhaps no team in the NHL leaned on its rookies more in 2021 than the Nashville Predators did.
Over the course of the season, Nashville played an NHL-high 12 rookies, who produced 25 goals, 53 points, seven power play goals, 13 power play points and a combined plus-12 rating in 182 games, sparking the Predators’ 20-7-1 run over the final 28 games — momentum that lead the team into the playoffs for the seventh straight season.
But quite possibly the rookies’ best contribution didn’t come in the form of goals or points but in the way the team carried itself and rallied together as if it had been a playoff team all along.
“The new players we brought in, I was so impressed with their details, their work ethic and their character every single day,” center Ryan Johansen said. “I thought once they really found their spot on this team, they started flourishing and we really saw what they were capable of in those last 25 games.”
"I thought it was great," forward Filip Forsberg added. "They got experience, but at the same time, they earned it…It's something that I've definitely been impressed with; [they] definitely push everybody. You see the depth and you see the quality that's coming in from underneath, and it definitely makes you want to work harder, and you want to keep your spot because there's guys coming from [the AHL]."
Of the 12 rookies that took the ice this year, as many as seven of them — Eeli Tolvanen, Yakov Trenin, Tanner Jeannot, Alex Carrier, Mathieu Olivier, Jeremy Davies and Rem Pitlick — could have a chance of claiming full-time roster spots next season.
And top prospect Philip Tomasino, who didn’t play at the NHL level this season, could be in line for a full-time job with the Preds as well.
Tolvanen began to carve out a role for himself on Nashville’s top power play unit and on the team’s top line alongside Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen. The 22-year-old forward also tied for the most game-winning goals (four) and ranked second in power play goals (six) and third in power play points (12) among rookies.
The trio outscored opponents 14-3 when playing together, dominating in several areas including scoring chances for (80-60), high-danger chances for (31-24), high-danger goals (6-3) and offensive zone faceoff percentage (78).
Nine of Tolvanen’s 11 goals came when he was playing next to Johansen, and Tolvanen’s line had more than double the scoring chances (46-20) when playing with Forsberg.
“It’s been a steady progression for [Tolvanen] to get back up to NHL ready,” Preds GM David Poile stated. “Finally, we felt he was ready and we gave him a chance. He did a great job for us mostly on the power play…He looks like he can be an elite player on the power play with his shot and his ability to score goals, which we need very much.
“…Again, in terms of what I see for the future of our team, I’m willing to bet [Tolvanen] is going to be a big player in our future. He could be a big answer [to needing a scoring forward] because he has the potential to score. Everything is going in the right direction, and he needs to have a good summer of conditioning to get ready and put in a good spot coming back in training camp.”
In any other year, Tomasino would have played in the junior leagues. But due to COVID-19 altering the QMJHL season, he spent the year tormenting AHL goalies with the Chicago Wolves.
The 19-year-old center had the best plus/minus rating (+20) of any rookie in the AHL and second-best in the league, and he ranked sixth in goals (13) and third in points (32) among all rookies. The 6-foot centerman finished tied for the seventh-most goals and points in the AHL.
Tying fellow Predators prospect Tommy Novak for the Wolves team lead in points, Tomasino ranked first on the team in shots on goal (91) and second in goals. He showcased a scoring prowess well beyond his years and gave Poile every reason to give him an extended look in training camp.
“We had [Tomasino] up here for a little bit of time but didn’t get an opportunity to play him, but he’s on my list,” Poile said. “I think from our development guys, he deserves a real good chance to make our team next year.”
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