Is Chris Tanev the League’s Most Underrated Defenseman?

Chris Tanev has had one of those storybook paths to the NHL. Fighting adversity since his teenage days in his hometown of East York, ON. When he was 16, the defenseman was cut by no less than seven midget teams in the Greater Toronto Area, and Tanev was forced to take up roller hockey as his sole outlet to the sport. He was ignored by all 30 NHL teams in the Entry Draft, and, after an impressive freshman year at the Rochester Institute of Technology, was signed as a free agent by the Vancouver Canucks. From there, he developed quickly into one of the Canucks most reliable defensemen.

Tanev’s rise to the NHL is certainly remarkable, but what’s more remarkable is how quietly he has gone about doing it. Those who closely follow the Canucks know how good a player Tanev is, but the rest of the league, especially fans in the Eastern markets who have fewer opportunities to see Western teams, are relatively oblivious to Tanev’s ascendance into a core player on his team.

Tanev is as quite on the ice as he is off it, and that’s exactly how everyone in Vancouver likes it. Known for his shyness to the media, Tanev does not exude the same enigmatic persona as Montreal’s PK Subban or Chicago’s Patrick Kane, and his play demonstrates the same disdain for the spotlight. Fortunately for him, Tanev’s play thrives when he is not a noticeable presence on the ice. In fact, it is not uncommon not to notice Tanev throughout an entire game. But that just means he is doing his job well. Tanev’s good plays are rarely noticeable, so his mistakes are the only time he makes highlight packages. Luckily, he is the closest thing the Canucks have to a mistake-free player, and his rise to prominence in Vancouver has made many consider him one of the most underrated players in the NHL.

 Tanev’s Numbers

TSN asked analytics expert Travis Yost to outline the ten best NHL players according to their fancystats, hockey’s new-age way of analyzing players’ effectiveness. Tanev was one of Yost’s poster boys for analytics, ranking 8th on his top ten list. He had this to say about him:

With Tanev on the ice over those 2000-minutes, Vancouver earned 52% territorial control and nearly 58% of the goals. And, the decent scoring rate further suggests he’s positively involved in the run of play. Now, look at his comparables based on the parameters established. It’s a group of first-pairing defenders and/or first-pairing defenders who have won a Norris Trophy.

Tanev’s comparables in this situation include Subban, Ryan McDonagh, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Victor Hedman. Not a bad group of players.

And yet Tanev’s name never gets mentioned in the same breath of any of these names. His quiet but assuring presence on Vancouver’s blueline is so subtle it alludes most casual viewers, but, if analyzed closely with the help of advanced stats, you can see that Tanev has become the Canucks best defenseman.

TanevStats
Tanev’s statistics, courtesy of war-on-ice.com

This graph, courtesy of war-on-ice.com, measures Vancouver’s defense by their Relative Corsi% within the context of their Offensive Zone Start % and quality of competition. Despite a low OFF ZS% and high Competition%, Tanev leads the Canucks blueline in Corsi%. This indicates that Tanev (along with his defensive partner, Alex Edler) is among the Canucks most efficient puck-movers, consistently gaining possession and exiting the defensive zone, starting an offensive rush. This characteristic is important for teams in a 5v5 setting, but is often overlooked because it lacks flashiness and excitement. Tanev’s game is built around finesse, calmness and responsibility, and his seemingly effortless ability to direct the puck out of the defensive zone is not instantly noticed in a one-time viewing. But it is still a crucial function, and one that Willie Desjardins and the coaching staff values.

General Manager Jim Benning renewed Tanev’s contract over the summer, but chose not to sign him on a long-term contract, opting instead for a one-year deal. Benning did not know much about Tanev before coming to Vancouver, so he was hesitant to offer lots of money to an unproven player. It is now December, and so far this season, Tanev has proved he is a solid top-four defenseman for the Canucks. His deal expires this summer, and certainly this time Benning will look to lock the team’s best blueliner down long-term.

The Canucks need Tanev in Vancouver.