There’s no question that special teams have been the Achilles’ heel of the Nashville Predators throughout the 2021 season.
While the 30th-ranked penalty kill may be a lost cause this year, the Predators' power play has made some strides since the beginning of February, coinciding with the placement of top prospect Eeli Tolvanen on that unit.
From Jan. 13 to Jan. 31, Nashville’s power play ranked 25th in the NHL after converting just 12.1 percent of the time. Since Tolvanen started seeing playing time with the unit, however, the Predators have the 17th-ranked unit in the league, converting 22.6 percent of their opportunities.
“He’s got good instincts on it,” Predators coach John Hynes said of Tolvanen. “He really understands it and he’s been a very good power play player at every level he’s played in. So, we like the way that that unit has looked.”
In Tuesday’s 2-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings, Tolvanen scored his first NHL power play goal, taking a cross-ice pass from Filip Forsberg and firing off a quick wrister that zoomed past Detroit goaltender Jonathan Bernier so quickly he barely had time to react.
The play was something that Tolvanen said he and Forsberg, who also had a power play goal himself about five minutes earlier, have been trying to perfect for a while.
“Tonight, you saw [Tolvanen’s] ability to get the shot off so quick on a seam pass, a low-stick handle and it’s off his tape in the net,” Hynes said. “He certainly has earned and shown the promise on the power play to be able to play on that unit.”
“When Fil gets the puck, he can make plays,” Tolvanen said. “We practiced that (pass) a couple days in practice. He’s really good at finding the seams and it was pretty much an empty net when I got it.”
Since entering Nashville’s lineup on Feb. 1, Tolvanen’s average ice time has been steadily increasing. The 21-year-old winger is flirting with nearly 13 minutes per game (12:53) and has seen his ice time on the power play spike as well.
In eight of the nine games Tolvanen has been used on the man advantage, he’s seen more than two minutes of ice time in six of those, including 3:42 in Tuesday’s win over Detroit and a career-high 3:56 against Columbus on Saturday.
In total, Tolvanen is averaging 2:35 of power play ice time per game. He’s getting more reps with the first power play unit and reaping the benefits of playing with guys like Forsberg and Roman Josi, who assisted on both power play goals on Tuesday.
“It’s a good sign when you get more ice time and get a chance to play on the first power play,” Tolvanen said. “I think we showed today, we scored two goals, we can build on that. It seems to be working when I get more ice time.”
“Now he’s on our (power play) unit, I know if I can just try and find him through that seam, it’ll be in the back of the net,” Forsberg added. “There’s almost a guarantee on that. He definitely needs to shoot it more. I think he’s been playing well; he’s been working really hard and he’s way more physical than I even thought he could be… He’s got an elite shot and he obviously proved it (on the second power play goal).”
While the Predators’ power play now ranks 21st in the league — still nothing to crow about — it is trending in the right direction. After a frustrating first month and change of this shortened season, the players and coaches will take any signs of progress.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_