When the Calgary Flames signed free-agent defenceman Chris Tanev to a four-year deal, some were very wary of the contract and player. The concerns had merit as he was coming off a rough season defensively with the Vancouver Canucks. However, the signing became one of, if not the best, signings of the 2020 offseason, and in 2020-21, he became one of the best defensive defensemen in the NHL.
Tanev was the go-to guy for the Flames’ coaching staff when it came to shutting down elite forwards. He helped elevate the play of both Noah Hanifin and Mark Giordano, who are at opposite stages of their careers. He easily made his case for Norris Trophy votes, at least for those who believe the trophy should be more about defence than points by a defenceman.
Calgary’s New Top Defenceman
At the beginning of the season, Tanev was paired with Hanifin, and they instantly found their stride, becoming the Flames’ best blue-line option. They were consistently the best on the team, and they played the most minutes against each of the Scotia North Division’s top lines. When Hanifin went down with an injury near the end of the season, Tanev played exclusively with Giordano, and they played well defensively together.
Tanev was the common factor in Hanifin reaching the potential that got him drafted fifth overall in 2015 and Giordano returning to form this season. Via MoneyPuck, among the defence pairs who played 300-plus minutes together, Tanev-Hanifin ranked sixth in the league and Tanev-Giordano ranked first in expected goals for percentage (xGF%), both posting a 58.4 and a 68.5 xGF%, respectively. For comparison, Norris Trophy nominees Cale Makar and Adam Fox both played on pairings that posted 64.2 and 58.6 xGF%, respectively, right in between the two pairings Tanev played on.
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Individually, Tanev’s expected goals against (xGA) metric indicates that he was among the best defensemen at allowing fewer quality chances and shots. His 24.15 xGA at five-on-five was eighth in the league amongst blueliners playing over 500 minutes, and he was only on the ice for 23 goals against. Tanev had a renaissance season, but it didn’t come without a cost.
Tough Brand of Hockey
Tanev plays a gritty, tough-on-the-body style of defense. It’s an admirable characteristic and one that many fans and management still value. However, since he became a full-time NHLer, he has never played an 82-game season. The 2019-20 season would have been his first full campaign, but it was shortened to 69 games. He finished this season with 107 blocked shots in 56 games, almost two blocked shots per game.
Tanev played through broken ribs and a torn pectoral muscle to play in every game in 2020-21, including a meaningless four-game set against the Canucks to close out the campaign. In a full 82-game schedule, it’s hard to imagine he would have lasted more than 60 games with that kind of injury.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a player play through what this guy played through,” said Flames general manager Brad Treliving in his end-of-season address. “He took a hit here against Winnipeg, and I think the end toll was he broke a couple of ribs and tore a pec muscle. And I think he missed a practice.” (from ‘Flames defenceman Tanev shrugs off injuries: ‘Everyone plays with something’, Calgary Sun, May 21, 2021) The respect from his general manager and Tanev’s desire to want to help his team at any cost is admirable because, even with a significant injury, he was still one of the most effective defencemen in the last stretch of games.
A Career Year in a Season to Forget
At 31, Tanev had arguably the best season of his career, becoming one of the best defensive defencemen, hitting near his career points-per-game pace and taking just six minutes in penalties. There are other great defensemen in the league (like Adam Fox, Cale Makar and Victor Hedman, the Norris finalists), but Tanev should’ve received a Norris nomination this season.
Courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, among defencemen who played over 500 minutes, Tanev ranked 26th in allowing the fewest high-danger chances against (HDCA) allowing just 104. Bump that up to 700-plus minutes, and he ranks sixth and played 200 minutes more than the five defencemen ahead of him. In the same group, he also ranked fifth in on-ice save percentage at 0.937. He gave goaltenders Jacob Markstrom and David Rittich a much easier workload on most nights.
During the 2020-21 season, Tanev played the most minutes against Edmonton Oilers’ stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and he held them to a 37.9 and 33.7 xGF% and a 48.3 and 47.5 Corsi for percentage (CF%), respectively; away from Tanev, the Oilers’ forwards numbers rose to a 59 and 52 xGF% and a 55.2 and 50.9 CF%. In 10 games, McDavid and Draisaitl had a combined seven scoring chances. Playing with Hanifin, the pair gave McDavid his biggest headache as he posted his worst xGF% numbers against the Flames’ blueliners of 37 xGF%. That was amongst the Scotia North Division players that McDavid played more than 50 minutes against.
3 Years Left on Tanev’s Deal
Signing Tanev was a massive win for the Flames. At $4.5 million, he played well above his contract, and if he can give the Flames another season at that level, that deal will look like a bargain.
Flames management has gambled on veteran players in the past and was burned badly. In October, Tanev looked like another 30-year-old veteran who wouldn’t be able to live up to his contract. Credit to him for proving every writer and analyst wrong while having a career year defensively.