Chris Tanev: the talented but risky defensive option for the Toronto Maple Leafs

Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
2 months ago
It didn’t take long after Nikita Zadorov was off the market for it to become clear that not only had the Maple Leafs missed out on their target but that they also had another one in mind.
A big part of this deal seems to be that the Maple Leafs were looking for 50% retention on both Tanev and Zadorov in order to make them fit into the cap space that comes from John Klingberg’s likely season ending injury. The Flames retaining on both of Zadorov and Tanev would put them in a situation where they would only be able to retain on one of Lindholm or Hanifin, if it gets to the point where they will be dealt as well and if I’m Craig Conroy, those are the players I truly want to maximize my return on.
The good news for the Leafs is that Tanev is still available, heck if they want to go big it’s even better news that Hanifin is still available, and if you want to really think outside the box, don’t sleep on Lindholm as an ideal addition either, but I guess it is important to remember that there is still the matter of the Leafs having enough assets to send back to Calgary that they’d actually want, so it’s time to pump the brakes.
Tanev is the better option to Zadorov and below we’ll explore just how good he is, but Tanev also isn’t a player that publicly made a trade demand and had his agent bemoaning his icetime on social media. There isn’t a rush to trade Tanev beyond the fact that he does have an injury history and we’ll discuss the buyer beware aspects of Tanev as well. Given that it is clear to see the Leafs have expressed serious interest in Tanev, let’s take a look at who they’d potentially be bringing in and possibly what he’d cost them.

Tanev would easily be a top three defenceman on the Leafs

Where Zadorov was a 5th defenceman on Calgary who could possibly take a spot in the top four on the Leafs given the quality of their blueline, Tanev is unquestionably a top four defenceman on any team in the league and you could easily make a case for him being a top pairing defenceman on the current state Maple Leafs. That is much more of an upgrade than Zadorov was ever going to offer. At 6’2, Tanev offers decent size but he isn’t going to be a physical juggernaut. He’s not someone that will take being pushed around but he’s not his brother and not seeking opportunities to lay opponents out.
Though toughness can take many different forms:
He’s very much another TJ Brodie type option where his positional play and puck control is going to calm down the Leafs blueline. If the Leafs have one of Brodie/Tanev/Liljegren on the ice at all times suddenly Leafs goaltenders can always feel like someone is watching out for them.
Tanev is a career 20 minute a night defenceman, and when I say that I mean that over his 14 year career his average icetime is 19:59 a night. He’s been at 19:09 this season but now that Zadorov has moved on from Calgary it seems reasonable to assume his numbers will again start creeping upward as he’s been over 20 minutes per night every season he’s been in Calgary up until now. Over the past three seasons Tanev has been the top penalty killer by icetime for Calgary as well, so there’s that. In contrast, Zadorov was 5th amongst defenceman there were still with the team this season (6th if you include Gudbranson who had previously left.)
Where Tanev also mirrors the Brodies and Liljegrens of the years is that despite being a helpful puck mover, he doesn’t often find his way onto the scoresheet. Tanev had just 13 points last season and his career best is 28 points and 6 goals. As such, don’t expect Tanev to challenge for a spot on the power play.
Where Tanev makes a name for himself most is when you start looking at shot suppression on graphs:
While I can appreciate that being defensively inclined playing in Darryl Sutter system lends itself to charts that emphasize low expected goals and shot attempts, this is what you got with Tanev in Vancouver prior to his time in Calgary as well. And if you look at both Brodie and to a lesser extent, Mark Giordano, the ability to play sound defensive hockey wasn’t immediately forgotten after landing in Toronto.
Tanev’s defensive play last season landed him in the 98th percentile defensively using Evolving Hockey’s GAR/xGAR models that account to some degree for the quality of his teammates and his competition. And what we know is that Tanev spent a lot of time with MacKenzie Weegar and Noah Hanifin in top four role matching against top six forwards, while playing on a non-playoff team. Yes, he had strong partners, but with Brodie he might find someone similar to Weegar or Rielly could be a similar situation to Hanifin. Of course, neither accounts for the fact that he’ll probably be playing with McCabe to start.

It’s not as straightforward as that

Tanev is absolutely the statistical darling in line with what the Leafs brought in with Brodie and Muzzin before him. The issue is that the physicality that Toronto still hasn’t replaced after Muzzin was hurt alludes them and that’s probably why so much of the talk previously was about the 6’6 Zadorov that hits like a Mack truck.
The downsides to Tanev also need to be addressed and they do raise the question that are the numbers good enough to overlook these.
The first one that comes to mind is the injury history. Tanev had a terrible time in Vancouver but seemed to turn a corner his first couple of years in Calgary. Last season he was down to 65 games which is far from his worst season but is very much at the median games per season he has had over his career. Tanev gets hurt, there’s a history of that, and now he’s 33. Hockey players generally don’t age like fine wine and an injury at the wrong time on someone who is potentially a rental player is a huge risk. Of course someone with no injury history can still be knocked out for the season the day after you trade for them so it’s just a small case for caution.
The other piece that might be a bit of a turn off is the lack of skills that the Leafs could benefit from on their blueline. A howitzer of a point shot would have been nice (again, Zadorov), or someone who can add some speed to account for the fact that Brodie, Giordano, and Klingberg all move like glaciers. That isn’t Tanev and that skating speed is only going to diminish if the Leafs want to keep him beyond this season.
Which brings us to the rental aspect of Chris Tanev. If Chris Tanev is a rental defenceman, the hope should be the Leafs are paying for him as such. If the plan is to get as much as they can out of Tanev and send him on his way at the end of the season, regroup in the summer and take a serious long term look at the Leafs blueline, great. Tanev for a year doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
If the plan is to re-sign the 33-year-old Toronto native beyond this season, the discussion needs to turn to how deep is that hometown discount going to be. Tanev as a 33 year old (I hate that I’m talking about him like he’s near death) with an injury history is not someone that you’d want to see Toronto go long term with. It’s notable that Brad Treliving signed Mark Giordano to a 6-year deal when he was 32 that paid him $6.75AAV. Giordano in his prime was the better defenceman and lacked the injury history, but between that example and the recent Ryan Reaves signing, Treliving has a history of offering term without discount to players who are more likely than not to decline.

What’s the price?

The first thing that needs to be factored in is that the Leafs aren’t only asking for Tanev, they are asking for Tanev and some salary relief. Chris Tanev’s cap hit is $4.5M and the Leafs don’t have that. The Leafs would love to be paying $2.25M for Tanev, but even then, it’s entirely possible that they’d love to send David Kampf and/or Ryan Reaves out as well. Good luck with the term on those players, but it doesn’t hurt to ask what it would cost. With salary retention and/or taking back a bad contract the Leafs would easily be looking at least a first round pick minimum. Toronto somewhat set that market themselves last deadline with the creative acquisitions of Ryan O’Reilly and Jake McCabe.
If it’s just a first to get salary retention, the Leafs should probably do it laughingly, but the issue becomes the Leafs have cap space but are down a key asset to make further moves. And Tanev on his own isn’t so much about putting the Leafs on the path to being an over the top contender, Tanev is more about righting the wrong of the Klingberg signing.
The Leafs don’t have the benefit that the Canucks did in the Zadorov trade. They made the space that salary retention wasn’t an issue, and they took on a player that the Flames were more motivated to move. Calgary will hold out for something better than a 3rd and 5th for Tanev because even without salary retention he’s worth more than that as a rental.
Waiting for the market to fill up with other options might be the best path to making Tanev affordable or allowing the Leafs to pursue other options. It’s just that patience might not be the right call for the Leafs organization as well as it is never popular with Leafs fans. Paying a bit of a premium to get those extra games in a time of need might be important and when you look at the defensive market today, Tanev is certainly one of the top available options.
Data Sourced from Capfriendly, Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, NHL Edge, and Hockey Reference.

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