The 23-year-old defenseman is highly-regarded among his teammates and fans of the team. But what makes him so special? Those who don't know Tanev would say he isn’t the fastest skater or the strongest guy on the ice, and that he has scored only five goals in 194 career professional hockey games (combined AHL and NHL).
Those who don't know Tanev can continue to question his game because those who know Tanev, know he plays beyond his years.
The Road to the NHL
Most Canucks fans are familiar with Tanev’s story. But if you aren’t, here is a Coles Notes version: Tanev was a talented – but undersized – defenseman in the Ontario junior hockey ranks. At the age of 15, when most talented junior hockey players in Ontario are preparing for their OHL careers, Tanev was only five feet tall and 120 pounds. He had the talent and hockey instincts to succeed despite his shortcomings. He wasn’t drafted into the OHL, and ended up quitting the game of hockey for a few years (Tanev still hung around the game and played inline hockey during that time).
Tanev eventually returned to the ice, opting to go the college hockey route.
By the time he joined the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers for the 2009-10 season, Tanev had shot up to well over six feet. He spent only one season at RIT, compiling 10 goals and 28 points in 41 games. The Canucks offered him a free agent contract in the summer of 2010, largely based on the glowing scouting report from their Director of Player Development, Dave Gagner. Ganger was very familiar with Tanev, as he coached him one summer on a Toronto-based inline hockey team. Tanev had also competed growing up against Dave’s son, and Oilers center, Sam. Impressed with their presentation and plan to make him a better player, Tanev signed with the Canucks.
Tanev split time in his first professional season between Vancouver and Manitoba. He even suited up for five postseason games for the Canucks during their 2011 Stanley Cup Final run. In the span of three years, Tanev had gone from playing tier-2 hockey in Ontario to the NCAA to the AHL to the Cup Final. And as teammate Kevin Bieksa said at the time, Tanev looked “like he could have played with a cigarette in his mouth.” From day one in the NHL, Tanev displayed poise and instincts, even in the highest of pressure situations.
Tanev has been able to excel at the professional level because of his impressive positioning, overall defensive acumen, and hockey smarts. He was forced to play such a smart brand of hockey because for so many years he was competing against bigger, stronger, and faster opposing forwards. Throwing hits wasn’t even an option.
The one-year pact negotiated between the Canucks and Tanev is interesting, for a few reasons. For one, Tanev doesn’t play a style of hockey that is conducive to tangible measurements. In his first two NHL seasons, he recorded zero goals three assists in 54 games. Tanev’s contributions to the team go far beyond the numbers that show up on the score sheet, but that isn’t always easy to convey during contract negotiations. Using advanced statistical metrics, Tanev has been a solid possession player during his three-year NHL career, but there are still limitations there. So much of what he does well doesn’t show up in a number.
Where does Tanev go from here? His most impressive offensive season at the NHL was by far 2013. He doubled his career-high in goals (well, not technically, as you can’t double zero), and started to display more confidence with the puck on his stick. Tanev won’t be mistaken for Jason Garrison with how he shoots the puck, nor will he be mistaken for Alex Edler for how he skates it up the ice. But he took significant strides forward in both areas last season.
His first career goal highlighted many of the elements of what makes Tanev an effective player.
He showed terrific instincts to slide up into the slot, and he put his shot in the perfect area past Devan Dubnyk. Tanev wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to play with the Sedins in overtime during his first few years in the league, but he continued to open up doors with his overall improvements.
Young defensemen tend to overthink the game and make rushed plays during their first few years in the league. Not Tanev. He makes the smart, high-percentage play. He doesn’t put his defensive partner or teammates in bad situations – his outlet passes are crisp and on the mark. He doesn’t take bad penalties (or any penalties, for that matter).
Tanev has spent the past few summers training in Ontario with Gary Roberts (alongside Canucks prospect Brendan Gaunce and a number of NHLers, including Steven Stamkos and James Neal). He isn’t going to suddenly develop a physical edge – that isn’t his game. But with improved strength and some additional muscle, Tanev will be able to win more puck battles and do a better job of preventing opposing players an easy route to the net.
We don’t know how the defensemen will be utilized under John Tortorella. Alain Vigneault and Rick Bowness encouraged offense from the backend. Tortorella deserves credit for how he helped develop Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Michael Del Zotto, Anton Stralman, and Ryan McDonagh in New York. He gave each of his young defensemen a clearly defined role to best maximize their skill sets.
Because of his unique path to the NHL, Tanev has had to overcome a lot of hockey-related adversity in his life (including getting cut by seven teams in one offseason). He has had to battle and compete for everything – ice time, the last spot on the team, an opportunity. That mentality won’t change, even though he enters camp this fall knowing he has a spot waiting for him on the Vancouver blueline.