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|The secret was out pretty quickly.
A week before the 2015 playoffs Josh Sitton Jersey , the United States Hockey League’s Sioux City Musketeers invited prospect Eeli Tolvanen to skate with them to see about signing him for the following season. He stood out among older players on a first-place team.
”This little 15-year-old kid from Finland who was about 5-foot-6 at the time, he came to that practice and you could tell he was an elite playmaker,” now-New York Rangers defenseman Neal Pionk said. ”When he was doing that at that age, we could tell almost right away.”
Tolvanen now looks like a Finnish Mozart on ice, a child prodigy who reaches the next level of hockey faster than anyone expects. On the verge of turning 19, Tolvanen for his next masterpiece could be playing a meaningful part in a playoff run for the NHL-leading Nashville Predators, based on the range of his experiences already.
”His growth just step-by-step happened quicker than most people see,” said Jay Varady, Tolvanen’s coach in Sioux City. ”He’s just been successful at a really young age in really tough challenges.”
At 17, Tolvanen led his team and tied for eighth in points in a USHL full of 19- and 20-year-olds, went 30th in the draft last June to Nashville and decided to go home to play professionally for Jokerit in the Kontinental Hockey League. Contract talks with the Predators began on draft day and continued as Tolvanen set the KHL scoring record for an 18-year-old and rarely looked out of his depths.
Unlike when Sioux City got a first impression of Tolvanen and thought it a no-brainer to give up its first-round pick to sign him, Jokerit general manager and Hockey Hall of Famer Jari Kurri wasn’t sure what to expect. Sure, Tolvanen lit up Finnish junior leagues, but this was a different level playing against men.
”Since the first day, everybody was pretty clear that this guy is hardly a kid,” Kurri said. ”Everything went smoothly.”
Tolvanen led Finland in scoring at the world juniors twice and tied for second in points among all players at the Olympics as one of the youngest players in the tournament. Before and after the Olympics Sebastian Janikowski Jersey , he filled up highlight reels in the KHL and impressed Jokerit staff with more than just his shot.
”He’s more like a well-rounded player than many people maybe understand at the moment,” coach Jukka Jalonen said. ”He can defend excellent, he’s really physical, he hits hard, he has good vision on the ice. He can pass the puck over and shoot it, and he can play defense. He’s a very sound player.”
Pionk didn’t see Tolvanen’s marksman-like shot in the spring of 2015 because a growth spurt hadn’t happened yet. Two years in the USHL playing under Varady allowed Tolvanen to grow and adapt his game to an ice surface smaller than those in Europe while learning English and American culture.
”It was really just Eeli’s commitment to becoming a pro,” Varady said. ”He wanted to come over here, he did want to learn the language. He wanted to challenge himself on the smaller rink, tighter-checking game than maybe under-20 in Finland.”
Tolvanen’s depth of experiences from the USHL to the KHL and the Olympics could speed up his learning curve in the NHL. He averaged more than 12 minutes in his first two games and was quick to get over the enormity of his leap to the next level.
”Most of the nerves went away after the first shift,” Tolvanen said.
Before the organization’s top prospect debuted, Predators coach Peter Laviolette said he hoped it was a seamless transition and pointed out that Tolvanen could simply fit in instead of carrying the load. Laviolette saw a jump in Tolvanen’s play from Game 1 to 2 and expects the improvement to continue.
”He looked like he was skating better, more competitive, more confident with the puck,” Laviolette said Sunday in Tampa. ”Every game he plays, I think he’s going to get more and more comfortable with the speed of the game, with the level of competition.”
Other young Finns have raised the level of competition in the NHL DeForest Buckner Jersey , from Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Florida’s Aleksander Barkov to Carolina’s Sebastian Aho, Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen and Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen. Kurri thinks those players succeeding and playing a full season against grown men in the KHL readied Tolvanen for this.
”He was facing tough games night after night,” Kurri said. ”He’s a fast guy but he’s pretty strong – strong in his skates, too. A lot people are surprised (by) that. He can play physical game. He can hit, too, and he wants to. I think this year really helped (him) to be a better player when he started facing the KHL teams night after night.”
Joining fellow Finns Pekka Rinne, Juuse Saros and Miikka Salomaki should help Tolvanen, the third-youngest player in the NHL this season. Though judging from his experience with Jokerit and Finland’s national team, he fits in with teammates of all ages.
”He gets well along with older guys, and they love Eeli and how he handles himself on and off the ice,” Jalonen said. ”He’s quite a laid-back presence. He’s quite cool, quite patient under the pressure and he doesn’t panic. I think he’s matured as he’s aged.”
As Tolvanen ages and sharpens his all-around game, he is expected to be part of the Predators’ long-term future with Johansen, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and P.K. Subban. He already stands out and has plenty of room left to improve.
”He do Tennessee left tackle Taylor Lewan is skipping the Titans' mandatory minicamp while his agents negotiate a new contract for the two-time Pro Bowl lineman.
Titans general manager Jon Robinson said in a statement Tuesday just before the team started a three-day minicamp that Lewan's representatives told the team he would not be attending.
"We have had several constructive conversations over the last 5-6 weeks about his contract status," Robinson said in his statement. "He is currently under contract Junior Seau Jersey , and we are working to keep Taylor as part of this organization for a long time."
Lewan, who turns 27 in July, is younger than Nate Solder who became the league's highest-paid offensive lineman in March with a four-year, $62 million deal from the New York Giants . Lewan is under contract for 2018 after the Titans picked up his fifth-year option paying him $9.34 million this season.
The Titans drafted Lewan at No. 11 overall in 2014 out of Michigan, and he has started every game the past two seasons in being selected to consecutive Pro Bowls. He has started 53 of his 58 games played with the 6-foot-7, 309-pound Lewan a key piece in protecting quarterback Marcus Mariota.
First-year head coach Mike Vrabel, himself a former NFL player, said he is confident in Robinson and the front office to handle contracts.
"I understand that there sometimes becomes issues with those, so I think that they're best handled internally," Vrabel said.
Lewan had taken part in most of the team's offseason program, and he also helped the Titans unveil their redesigned uniforms in April. But he wasn't at a photo session Monday, and the Titans announced Lewan wouldn't be at minicamp minutes before the first practice started Tuesday.
Kevin Pamphile, a free agent signee this March, replaced Lewan in the lineup at left tackle. Dennis Kelly has been at right tackle with Jack Conklin recovering after tearing his left ACL in the Titans' playoff loss at New England. Pamphile signed with the Titans in part for an opportunity and from getting to know Robinson while in Tampa Bay.
"You've got to take advantage of every rep you get whoever's across the line," Pamphile said. "Opportunity and competition that remains the key for our offensive line, want to make sure we're all competing and getting better each day."
Lewan Aldrick Rosas Jersey , a Pro Bowl left tackle, told reporters May 30 that he was letting his agent handle negotiations for a new contract and that any talks with the Titans to that point were nothing worth talking about.
Lewan, who believes he's the NFL's best left tackle, certainly noticed Solder's "awesome" contract.
"There are a lot of things I do well and a lot of things I can improve upon as a football player," Lewan said on May 30.
"But for me, if I don't walk on the field and think I'm the best player in the NFL every time I step on the field, then I'm doing something wrong."
Four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo isn't worried about Lewan not being at this minicamp.
"I love Lewan, I respect every decision he makes, and one thing about Lewan whether he's right here right now or whether I see him Week 1, he's going to be ready to go," Orakpo said.
"So hopefully they'll get that situated. That's out of my control. But knowing Lewan if it gets done Saturday before the game Week 1, he'll be ready to go."
Linebacker Kevin Dodd, the No. 33 pick overall in 2016, had stayed away from the offseason program until Tuesday when he faced a fine. He literally ran away from reporters trying to talk to him after practice. Vrabel said he didn't talk to Dodd, only asked him to do what the coaches have asked all the other players to do.
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