Eeli Tolvanen served as a cautionary example last year of how the Nashville Predators want to approach bringing their top prospects into the fold.
Tolvanen made the Predators’ roster out of training camp — albeit on the taxi squad — but he didn’t play in a regular season game until Feb. 1, eight games into the season. The 21-year-old was eased in slowly, playing a little over 11:30 per game before seeing his ice time jump to 14:30 by the end of the season.
In a perfect world, the Predators would like to implement a similar plan with center Philip Tomasino and right winger Egor Afanasyev, who have both battling for an opening-night roster spot through training camp and the preseason.
“I think it’s really important that we make the right decision for the player,” Predators coach John Hynes told102.5-FM’s Robby Stanley. “Like both of those guys are young guys and you see pockets where they’ve been really good. You don’t want to have a young player where say they make the team to say they make the team, but maybe they’re only playing around 10 or 11 minutes. That’s not good for them.”
Both forwards have shown promise through three preseason games. Tomasino has two goals on eight shots, and he’s averaged 17 minutes of ice time per game. He’s also had nearly 6:30 of ice time on the power play. He was mentioned by name by General Manager David Poile several times during the offseason as a player who will be given every opportunity to make Nashville’s roster.
Conversely, Afanasyev has put up similar stats to Tomasino — three goals and four points on five shots while averaging 13:25 of ice time per game — but he was never believed to be in real consideration for a roster spot out of camp. His performance during the preseason, however, has changed the nature of those conversations.
“Phil’s scored a couple goals, Egor’s got some goals,” Hynes continued. “You see Egor’s size and skating and you see Tomasino’s speed and competitiveness. Is it ready to be night in and night out? And then (another question I have is: Where do they necessarily fit into the lineup?”
The Predators appear to be grooming Tomasino for a top-six role this season, potentially on the second line with some combination of Tolvanen, Cody Glass, Mikael Granlund or Matt Duchene. As was the case with Tolvanen, Tomasino is too good to waste away on the third or fourth line, and playing him there would not be maximizing his talents.
An equally talented scorer in his own right, Afanasyev and his 6-foot-4, 201-pound frame are more suited for a Filip Forsberg or James Neal power forward kind of role.
The 20-year-old has made it awfully difficult to send him back to the American Hockey League, especially after seeing his underrated goal-scoring ability, but it could be argued playing for the Milwaukee Admirals is the best situation for him, at least to begin the season.
There simply isn’t room in Nashville’s top six for Afanasyev right now, and playing him 10 minutes or less in more of a forechecking role than a scoring one on a game-by-game basis would be a disservice to his development.
“Sometimes it is good for a player to be able to play in Milwaukee, even if it’s for 10 games or 15 games and they’re really going and playing 20 minutes and doing their thing and then all the sudden they get called up to play,” Hynes said. “I think the biggest thing is are all of the attributes in their game ready to do it night in and night out. And are their best attributes at a level where you think they’re going to be successful? That’s part of the decision-making process.”
Nashville hosts the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Bridgestone Arena in their final preseason game. The Predators currently have 16 forwards, nine defensemen and three goaltenders on the roster. They need to get down to the 23-player league maximum before their season opener on Oct. 14 against the Seattle Kraken.
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