When you’ve got the future of your blueline nearing free agency, you do just about anything you can to secure him long-term. That’s exactly what the Vancouver Canucks did Tuesday when they inked Chris Tanev to a five-year, $22.5 million extension.
Tanev, 25, signed the five-year deal just months before his current one-year contract is set to expire. In five seasons, Tanev has gone from promising prospect to top-pairing defenseman for the Canucks, and his new deal signifies Vancouver has high hopes for what his future holds. The signing was an all-around no brainer.
“He’s what we call a transition defensive defenceman,” Canucks GM Jim Benning said in a statement to announce the signing. “He’s a real good skater and has high hockey IQ. He takes away time and space from the forwards and he’s smart in his position defensively, but when he gets the puck, he can skate it up the ice and he makes good plays getting it up to the forwards.”
It’s his defensive play that has made him such a gem for Vancouver. While some will look at two goals and 16 points as a player not worth $4.5 million per season, Tanev’s ability to thwart the opposition attack is what makes him so valuable.
There are 89 defensemen in the NHL this season who have played at least 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey. Tanev is one of them, and he has only been on the ice for 28 goals against at 5-on-5, tied with Pittsburgh’s Paul Martin and Tampa Bay’s Jason Garrison for fewest in the league. While teammate Alex Edler ranks fifth, on ice for 30 goals against at 5-on-5, last season, Tanev ranked 10th, on ice for 34 goals against at 5-on-5, and was the only Canuck in the top 40.
He’s also tied for 23rd of those 89 defensemen in shot attempts for percentage at 52.8 percent. That's a great total considering when you exclude rearguards who start fewer than 30 percent of their shifts in the defensive zone, he jumps to into a tie for 12th.
And when you compare Tanev’s deal – $4.45 million per year for five years – it looks better than many of the contracts of his statistical counterparts. Martin, 34, makes $5 million per season, Garrison, 30, has an annual salary of $4.6 million, and Tanev's teammates Kevin Bieksa, 33, and Dan Hamhuis, 32, make $4.6 and $4.5 million respectively. It’s not gigantic savings, but while the others making comparable money are entering the tail end of their careers, Tanev hasn't yet entered his prime.
What Tanev also brings is the ability to play a shutdown role. In the release from the Canucks, on top of praising Tanev’s ability to move the puck up ice, Benning said Tanev has shown he can play against the other team’s top competition.
“He’s played in our matchup pair all year and has played against the other team’s top lines,” Benning said. “He’s a competitive guy and he’s played really well.”
And it’s hard to understate the importance of being able to play big minutes as a shutdown defender, something Tanev has done this year to near perfection. While 28 goals against at 5-on-5 is impressive, it’s an even greater feat considering of the 89 1,000-minute blueliners, Tanev is in the top 25 percent when it comes to quality of competition. He’s not just facing other team’s top lines, he’s doing it every single time out.
While it would be nice if he had more offensive upside, not every defenseman in the Canucks stable is going to be Edler – a player equipped with a bomb of a slapshot that plays huge power play minutes. Tanev fits in the other category. He’s a shutdown defender whose game isn’t going to show up on the score sheet night in and night out, but the kind of defenseman you need to win in this league.
Heading into Wednesday night’s games, the Canucks have a four-point lead on the Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings for second place in the Pacific Division. Vancouver has won three straight and appear playoff bound. There’s no one believing the Canucks will go all the way this season, but they’re looking further ahead than one post-season.
If the Canucks lost Tanev, their blueline would be missing a key piece to future success. With him in the lineup, however, maybe it won’t be long before the Canucks are challenging for top spot in the division again.