As we all know by now, the Toronto Maple Leafs have a hole at right defence. As they seek to become a bona fide contender, they want to add someone to play with either Corsi superstar Jake Gardiner or glass cannon Morgan Rielly (Nikita Zaitsev will pair with the other.) So they’re in the market for a back-end upgrade.
Enter Chris Tanev.
Who is Chris Tanev?
Chris Tanev, whose name I will misspell as Christ Anev at least once in this piece, is a right-shooting defenceman currently playing for the Vancouver Canucks. Tanev is 27 years old, 6’2”, and a lean 195 lbs.
Tanev was an undrafted free agent, signed by the Canucks out of college after one year with the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers (side note: dope team name.) He bounced between the AHL and the NHL for a couple of seasons — he actually played in the last three games of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final — before latching on with the big club full-time in 2013. In 2014-15, Tanev bumped up to Vancouver’s top pairing with Alex Edler. He and Edler have been partnered on and off since; Tanev’s most frequent 5v5 partner this season was lead balloon Luca Sbisa.
Stylistically, Tanev is a positionally-sound puck-moving defenceman. Kevin Bieksa had a classic quote describing Tanev’s style during the 2011 Finals: "He could have played with a cigarette in his mouth. Everyone saw the way he played — very cool, very consistent with the puck." He’s a very defence-focused defenceman, but he’s not your classic, static Hal Gill type; he’s all about movement and positioning. It works well for him: Chris Tanev is one of the best shot-suppressing defencemen in the NHL.
Shot suppression, and all the related good things associated with it, are what make Tanev special. He was easily the best Canuck defender by most defensive metrics — Corsi Against/60, Scoring Chances Against/60, etc. This is all the more impressive because (as with most things) the Canucks were generally bad at it, and because (as with most things) Luca Sbisa was really bad it. Tanev’s numbers improved immensely whenever he was separated from his partner.
Now for the bad news: Tanev does not produce. At all. Ever. In 5v5 points per 60 minutes, Tanev was 189th out of 197 defencemen this year (min. 500 minutes played.) His CF/60 is completely unimpressive, as compared to his stalwart CA. There’s some reason for that — Tanev is 174th on that list in offensive-zone start percentage, and he played a lot of minutes against top forward lines. This only makes his defensive numbers more impressive, but Tanev has never had notable offensive production and probably never will. Know that going in. He is a defensive defenceman.
Final note about Tanev the player: his injury history is not great. He missed 29 games this season from a couple of injuries (ankle and upper-body), although he played most of the latter part of the miserable Canucks season. Tanev missed 13, 12, and 18 games in the seasons before; he is nearing the label of “injury-prone”, though still quite effective when he plays.
Why would the Leafs and Canucks make a trade for him?
Tanev is currently signed for three more seasons at $4.45M per year, on a deal that Canucks GM Jim Benning signed him to in March 2015. While Benning and the Canucks clearly value Tanev as a player, they also finished 29th this season and they probably won’t make the playoffs again for the duration of Tanev’s contract. Considering Tanev is maybe the most valuable trade piece left on Vancouver’s roster, does it really make sense to keep him around until his 30s? A further point on this topic: Tanev has a modified no-trade clause that will kick in for next season, but as of right now, he has no trade protections.
Benning has said he’s not going to shop Tanev, but that’s exactly what you say when you’re awaiting offers. Canucks beat writer Jason Botchford described Benning as sounding “open” to trading Tanev.
Hold that thought. So why would the Leafs want him?
Well, the obvious reasons are that, as stated above, they need a top-four RHD and they’re a defensively porous, offensively potent team. Tanev is good at exactly the things the Leafs are bad at, and the Leafs have more than enough people to cover Tanev’s weaknesses.
Have a look at this:
Doesn’t that look like a nice, complementary match? You might have thought it did if you watched the World Championships last spring, because Rielly and Tanev paired up to form one of Team Canada’s best defensive pairings. The two were never on for a goal against together. They didn’t produce many points, as is Tanev’s custom, but several players—including Connor McDavid and Brendan Gallagher—left the tournament singing Tanev’s praises. Check out the fancy stats for 2016 World Championship defencemen (and ignore that Marchenko and Ceci were also overperforming.)
So: Tanev seems like exactly the jigsaw piece to fit the Leafs’ puzzle. Further, if he meshes well, the Leafs would be able to play a solid top-four defence group for a combined cap hit of $19M. If the Leafs are hesitant to shell out big money for a free agent defenceman of the Kevin Shattenkirk class — who might cost in the $7M range annually — Tanev would seem like a nice compromise choice. You aren’t buying a sure thing — Rielly and Tanev as a top pairing over the long term is uncertain, and you might be looking at more of a rotation with Gardiner and Zaitsev. But it’s certainly worth considering.
What would he cost?
So let’s get down to brass tacks.
First up: if the Leafs acquire Tanev, they’re going to have to protect him in the expansion draft. The Canucks shouldn’t really have a huge problem for the expansion draft because they don’t have that many good players, but they seem to value defenders like Luca Sbisa and Erik Gudbranson more than I do, which means they may want to do a trade for Tanev before June 18th in order to gain a free protection slot. If the Leafs want to wait until after the expansion draft to make a trade for Tanev (so as to avoid losing/paying to protect Connor Carrick), they might be outbid by a team willling to pull the trigger earlier.
Anyway. That aside, here’s Jason Botchford:
I think a first-rounder plus something [is the return the Canucks are looking for]… I think you can get a substantial amount for him. Chris Tanev is worth a hell of a lot. Defencemen like him are very difficult for teams to get. Obviously, we know he is a top-four defenceman, and I think with the right pairing partner, he is a top-pairing guy. If you put him up on the right-side of a second pairing, you have a real chance to build a top-four that can compete.
Elliotte Friedman describes the price for Tanev as “very high”, and that Vancouver “is not looking to do this unless it’s a great deal.” Friedman does not enlighten us as to what that price might specifically be.
Scott Cullen had the guts to moot around an actual trade proposal for Tanev, and he was rewarded by being roundly mocked for it. But Cullen’s trade proposal, at least in my opinion, was not laughable. He suggested the Leafs might succeed with a package of Brendan Leipsic, Connor Carrick, and a first-rounder. This gives the Canucks two promising 23-year-olds, one a left wing who just tore up the AHL, and one a RD who is at least capable of playing a regular NHL shift. That and an additional first is at least worth considering from Vancouver’s position.
Is the price for Tanev going to go higher than that? Botchford (who may be biased) talks up Tanev as the kind of guy who is in universal demand, but he’s probably not far off. Right-handed top-four defenders are always popular, and the Leafs would most definitely not be the only suitor. At the same time, Chris Tanev does not score at all, and points tend to drive prices...but the market for defence is strange.
To take an example, Jason Demers, a right-shooting D who is nearly as good as Tanev in shot suppression and is better at most other things. Demers was traded along with a third-round pick from San Jose to Dallas in 2014...for third-pairing defenceman Brenden Dillon, who is pretty clearly worse. Stay-at-home defenceman Adam Larsson famously cost Edmonton a superstar left wing in Taylor Hall, while Edmonton unloaded a quality RHD in Jeff Petry for a second and a fifth at the 2015 trade deadline. Defensive defencemen are almost a Rorschach test.
If Adam Larsson set the market for defensive RHD, then Tanev is going to cost somebody a mint. But I think it’s more likely that a deal along the lines of Cullen’s description would set the template, of a first combined with a couple of young players/prospects. The Canucks can probably have their choice of Leaf wing prospects (Toronto has too many AHL LWs anyway, with the expansion draft and waivers hanging over them); you can make a list headed by Kasperi Kapanen and going down through Leipsic, Josh Leivo, Kerby Rychel, Carl Grundstrom, Jeremy Bracco, and so on. This runs the risk of getting into three-quarters-for-a-loonie territory, but...I don’t think Tanev is going to be able to command a prospect better than Kapanen, nor multiple firsts. If he does, the Leafs will likely have to bow out of bidding for him, because any trade would become a mistake for us.
So: set the upper limit of a Leafs deal for Tanev at 1st + Kapanen + Rychel. On those terms it’s definitely worth it for the Canucks, rather than hanging on to Tanev (which is not something they should really do.) Is it enough to outbid other teams? Only time and Jim Benning will tell.