GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Miro Heiskanen and Eeli Tolvanen are must-see entertainment at the Olympics, even for their Finnish teammates.
Heiskanen and Tolvanen are the only 2017 first-round draft picks playing in the tournament, an opportunity to show what their very-near NHL futures might look like. Heiskanen, a puck-moving defenseman who was the third pick of the Dallas Stars, and Tolvanen, a scoring winger who was the 30th pick of the Nashville Predators, have substantial roles for Finland and are expected to play in the NHL next season, if not sooner.
“It’s a great thing to get a chance to play with them before they go in the bigger league,” captain Lasse Kukkonen said. “I think it’s going to be fun.”
Heiskanen and Tolvanen are 18-year-olds who joke around in the locker room and bring what coach Lauri Marjamaki called a “freshness” to the team full of European-based veterans. Tolvanen will play on the first line alongside Petri Kontiola and get first power-play time, and Heiskanen will be counted on to pump in some goals from the blue line.
That’s not too much of an expectation. Two of the youngest players in the tournament, along with projected 2018 top pick Rasmus Dahlin of Sweden, Heiskanen and Tolvanen have drawn rave reviews for how they fit in with and against older players.
“It’s amazing to see how well they play at a young age, but if you watch them on the ice you could never tell,” Kukkonen said.
Heiskanen has 11 goals and eight assists in 25 games with HIFK in the Finnish Elite League, while Tolvanen has 17 goals and 17 assists in 47 games with Jokerit in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Playing against grown men seems to make them thrive. Heiskanen said older teammates “are smarter, and it’s maybe easier to play with those guys,” and Tolvanen considers it a challenge.
“I’ve always been the youngest guy on the team,” Tolvanen said. “It’s just more fun playing against older guys because you know they’re stronger, maybe faster than you are, so you have to compete every day and you have to give your best every night.”
The Stars and defending Western Conference-champion Predators know they have something special in Heiskanen and Tolvanen. Rumors have swirled about Tolvanen joining the Predators this season, but he’s concerned first about the Olympics and the rest of the KHL season.
“I don’t think that’s a thing I have to worry (about) right now,” Tolvanen said. “I just have to live in the moment and live day by day. I still have playoffs with Jokerit, so let’s see after the playoffs what I’m going to do.”
Tolvanen said his game resembles that of St. Louis Blues sniper Vladimir Tarasenko and compared Heiskanen’s to Norris Trophy-winning Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson. Those are lofty comparisons, but Finns who have played in the NHL like what they see so far.
“(Heiskanen) really plays like a seasoned veteran,” former Calgary Flames goaltender Karri Ramo said. “I play with Tolvanen and he’s been excellent. … His overall game’s been improving all the time. He’s going to be a big part of this team and a big part of Jokerit.”
Nashville already is overflowing with young forwards — Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Kevin Fiala — and looks primed for another deep playoff run. Any team looking to trade with the Predators ahead of the Feb. 26 deadline will undoubtedly ask about Tolvanen, but he and Heiskanen might be NHL-ready and able to help now.
“He’s a great kid,” Marjamaki said. “Eeli’s so talented (of a) guy and versatile player. I like his hockey sense, he’s pretty good skating and (has a) unbelievable shot.”
Heiskanen, who is feeling good now after dealing with the effects of a concussion in the fall, figures making the jump to the NHL is possible next season as long as he trains hard this summer. Playing with him in pre-Olympic tournaments made quite the impression on Tolvanen, who is on board with Heiskanen taking his talents to the next level.
“He’s an amazing player,” Tolvanen said. “He’s really fun to play with because he can see you and he has the ability to score goals, so I think that’s a D-man I want on my team.”
Dallas’ Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn should like the sound of that.
For his part, Tolvanen also said he’s ready to make the leap to the NHL after proving himself in the KHL, and Kukkonen is eager to witness what the two kids can do when they get to North America.
“The sky’s the limit,” Kukkonen said. “We’ve seen both guys doing big things already, and they only keep getting better, so I think they’re going to be top players in the world once they get a little bit older.”