Chris Tanev cost just $4.5 million against the Calgary Flames’ salary cap during the 2020–21 season. His play was worth a lot more.
Tanev seamlessly replaced the departed TJ Brodie in his first go-round with the Flames, logging nearly 22 minutes per game while posting some of the best defensive results in the entire NHL.
He formed a rock-solid pair with Noah Hanifin and maintained his excellent play even as he dealt with multiple injuries near the season’s conclusion. (Why Tanev continued to play through such ailments during the largely meaningless stretch run of a lost year is anybody’s guess).
When pen met paper on his deal last October, some writers (this one included) cast doubt on Tanev’s ability to match Brodie’s contributions while continuing to be a positive asset for the duration of the four-year term.
Less than a year later, Tanev has clearly displayed his capability as one of the league’s most effective shutdown defensemen. It can sometimes be difficult for players to leave systems within which they have operated for their entire careers, but Tanev appeared to transition seamlessly to the Flames from the Vancouver Canucks.
The 31-year-old defenseman has three years left on his contract and it remains to be seen whether he can replicate his performance from 2020–21 in the coming seasons. For now, let’s take a closer look at what exactly made Tanev so effective this past year.
Tanev was never drafted into the NHL. He debuted with the Canucks as a 21-year-old during their memorable 2010–11 campaign, appearing in 29 regular-season games and six in the playoffs to help Vancouver reach the Stanley Cup Final.
Almost immediately, Tanev emerged as a terrific defensive defenseman for the Canucks. He amassed 44.8 defensive expected goals above replacement at even-strength (EVD xGAR) in his first nine seasons with Vancouver, never contributing fewer than 2.8 EVD xGAR in any one of those years (according to Evolving-Hockey).
Although never renowned for his offensive prowess, Tanev scored one of the most memorable goals in recent Canucks history when he beat Alex Stalock from distance for the series-winner against the Minnesota Wild in the 2020 qualifiers. Through 537 games with Vancouver, Tanev amassed just 23 goals and 105 assists.
Tanev and Quinn Hughes primarily manned the Canucks’ top pairing during the 2019–20 season. While Tanev recieved rave reviews for his ability to help his rookie partner acclimate to the NHL, he posted some of the worst underlying numbers of his career.
Hughes generally fared better away from Tanev in 2019–20 than he did next to him, albeit while being deployed in far more favourable situations.
A selection of the Vancouver Canucks’ play-driving results with and without Chris Tanev and/or Quinn Hughes in 2019–20 (all figures 5v5, data via Natural Stat Trick)
|Chris Tanev?||Quinn Hughes?||Time on ice||Shot attempt %||Expected goals %||Goals %||High-danger chance %||Offensive-zone faceoff %|
In his time away from Tanev, Hughes received almost comically lopsided deployments heavily slanted toward the offensive zone. Conversely, while separated from Hughes, Tanev received a lion’s share of the Canucks’ defensive starts.
It’s often difficult to draw many meaningful conclusions from zone-start data—particularly given how many shifts begin on the fly—but the extremely polarized nature of Hughes and Tanev’s respective figures merits notice.
Regardless, Evolving-Hockey assessed Tanev’s defensive performance in 2019–20 as having been worth 0.5 goals below replacement-level. For the second consecutive year, their model valued Tanev’s play as being worth less than his sticker cost.
Chris Tanev’s salary cap hit compared to Evolving-Hockey’s valuation of his play with the Vancouver Canucks between 2010–11 and 2019–20
|Season||Actual salary cap hit||Value provided (based on Evolving-Hockey model)|
|2013–14||$1.5 million||$6.7 million|
|2014–15||$2.0 million||$9.2 million|
|2015–16||$4.45 million||$6.8 million|
|2016–17||$4.45 million||$8.4 million|
|2017–18||$4.45 million||$10.8 million|
|2018–19||$4.45 million||$3.2 million|
|2019–20||$4.45 million||$1.2 million|
Tanev’s extensive injury history also sparked concerns when he signed his long-term deal with the Flames. Between the 2012–13 and 2018–19 seasons, Tanev played in only 391 of the Canucks’ 540 regular-season games.
The shortened 2019–20 season was the first of Tanev’s career in which he appeared in every single one of Vancouver’s contests. He scored 20 points (two goals, 18 assists) in 69 regular-season games before chipping in a goal and six helpers during the Canucks’ run to the second round of the 2020 playoffs.
What aging curve?
Chris Tanev’s salary cap hit compared to Evolving-Hockey’s valuation of his play between the 2016–17 and 2020–21 seasons
|Season||Team||Actual salary cap hit||Value provided|
|2016–17||Vancouver||$4.45 million||$8.4 million|
|2017–18||Vancouver||$4.45 million||$10.8 million|
|2018–19||Vancouver||$4.45 million||$3.2 million|
|2019–20||Vancouver||$4.45 million||$1.2 million|
|2020–21||Calgary||$4.5 million||$10.1 million|
Tanev was a revelation in his first season with Calgary, posting one of the best defensive seasons by a Flame since the NHL started tracking more advanced on-ice data in 2007–08.
He was absurdly good, leading the entire NHL with 11.7 defensive expected goals above replacement in 2020–21 and, according to Evolving-Hockey, fell just shy of reaching Johnny Gaudreau’s heights as Calgary’s most valuable player.
Tanev helped Noah Hanifin reach new heights in his third season with the Flames. The duo almost immediately clicked after being united early in the year, ultimately spending over 600 minutes together at even-strength and emerging as a genuine top pair.
A selection of the Calgay Flames’ play-driving results with and without Chris Tanev and/or Noah Hanifin in 2020–21 (all figures 5v5, data via Natural Stat Trick)
|Chris Tanev?||Noah Hanifin?||Time on ice||Shot attempt %||Expected goals %||Goals %||High-danger chance %||Offensive-zone faceoff %|
Hanifin, still only 24, may not be ready to anchor a pairing by himself. He certainly found plenty of success with Tanev, however, and credited his veteran partner back in February for stabilizing the Flames’ best two-way unit.
“I feel pretty confident right now, and I think Chris has been a huge part of that,” Hanifin said prior Tuesday’s clash, the second of three in a row against the Jets. “He’s been a great guy for me to play with and I think he’s really allowed me to play my own game, which is being aggressive offensively and jumping into the play. He’s just always in the right position so he makes my job a lot easier back there. So right now, I’m confident and I feel good about my game.”
Tanev is all but a lock to be protected in next month’s Seattle Kraken expansion draft.
Both he and Hanifin battled through serious injuries near the end of the 2020–21 season. Tanev played with a torn pectoral muscle and multiple broken ribs; Hanifin’s season ended prematurely with a shoulder injury requiring surgery.
Assuming the two make full recoveries, they’ll likely spend much of 2021–22 together again on a key pairing for the Flames.
If Calgary loses Mark Giordano to the Kraken, Tanev will likely assume an expanded leadership role as the Flames’ new elder statesman on the back-end.
With Hanifin, Rasmus Andersson, Juuso Valimaki, and Connor Mackey all 24 or younger, Calgary would likely dip into the free agent pool for another veteran rearguard but would still heavily rely upon Tanev to blaze a path forward for his younger teammates.
Tanev wore an “A” with the Flames on multiple occasions during 2020–21. As one of Calgary’s older (and, at this point, most effective) players, he could earn a promotion to full-time captaincy status in seasons to come.