Chris Tanev scored his first NHL goal, and I cheered

Photo Credit: Vancouver Canucks Facebook page

I’m not ashamed to admit that when Chris Tanev scored the overtime winner against the Edmonton what’s-its last night, I cheered a little bit. It’s not something I do often, as writing about a handful of teams and watching all 30 teams regularly hinders having a rooting interest in any one team (Editors note: if we’re being honest, even before he was being paid for words about hockey, Cam has always regarded goals as just another Corsi event for). I do have a soft spot for certain players, some on my fantasy team and some because I love a good underdog. In some cases, these Venn circles overlap and you have a player like Jamie Benn or Cory Conacher.

In other cases, the underdog player has no fantasy hockey value, and that would be a guy like Chris Tanev. 

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It’s funny how in the case of the Canucks’ bottom pairing, a Jack Adams-winning coach like Alain Vigneault plays Tanev ahead of a player like Cam Barker, who is older, was drafted third overall, is bigger, has a better shot and hits more.

Until a few games ago when Tanev got dinged for a boarding penalty, I’d never seen him display any hint of physical strength on the ice. Why does a hockey team need a player who can’t hit, can’t shoot and is small compared to the majority of NHL defenders? At 185 lbs, only Jordan Schroeder and Andrew Ebbett weigh less on the Canucks. Born on December 20, 1989, only Schroeder and Zack Kassian are younger. Despite all that, he’s been drawing rave reviews for his play this season.

As the top two defensive pairings have been split up and had their struggles, the bottom pairing is calm and doing well. It’s against easy opposition, which is an important qualifier, but they’re doing everything a bottom pairing should. They’re also playing more than a typical “third pairing.”

Tanev broke out, arguably, in Game Five of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals. He played a little over 12 minutes of time at even strength, primarily with Andrew Alberts. He had a plus-one Corsi number (the Canucks as a team were minus-four) but is primarily remembered for this play:

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With four bodies in front of the net and a clear screen on Tim Thomas, Chris Tanev displays remarkable—and I hate using this word—poise in his cross-ice pass to Tanner Glass. Glass whiffed on the sure-fire goal, earning the nickname ‘Fanner Glass’ in perpetuity in this town.

Tanev’s play earned rave reviews from Canucks No. 1 blue liner Kevin Bieksa, who said “he could have played with a cigarette in his mouth. Everyone saw the way he played—very cool, very consistent with the puck.”

I think what I liked about Tanev at first was that he became a player nobody disliked. Nobody can find a reason to dislike the guy. He played tier-2 junior, and thanks to a slow development hindered by a late December birthday, was undrafted out of the OHL. He played a year at the Rochester Institute of Technology and less than a year later, was playing on a successful National Hockey League team at age 20.

You can’t dislike him, you can only like him, despite his obvious physical “flaws”. I expected him to have more of an offensive role last season, but as it turns out, he can’t shoot. Nobody expected him to be a physical player, because he can’t hit. Yet everybody expects him to be successful, and he’s helping people come to grips with the idea that not every successful depth NHLer needs to provide muscle and not every successful undersized NHL defenceman needs game-breaking offensive ability.

Tanev proves that a player can be a successful NHLer by being smart on the puck and by closing down passing lanes. Tanev is so impressive because he’s so unimpressive and successful because he’s so unsuccessful: his relative Corsi was 2.3 as a 21-year old, 5.9 as a 22-year old, and now 8.4 in his 23-year old season. For whatever reason, the Canucks found a suitable third-pairing defenceman who came out of nowhere, and who makes the team better compared to his larger, harder shooting peers that play the same position.

I laud these traits. I like a good hockey highlight as much as the next guy, but there are some players who find the highlight reel but don’t make their team successful. Luke Schenn, by way of example, was supposed to be one of the next big NHL stars because he could do it all in junior, and Pierre McGuire let us know. He hit, he fought, he was big, he could skate, he had vision, but he couldn’t play. The top ten picks of the NHL draft is littered with players you could dream on, but who ultimately lacked a certain Chris Tanev-like ability to put it all together at the pro level.

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Tanev’s wrist shot to score his first NHL goal was a bit of a knuckler. Nail Yakupov slid to block the shot, but the shot came too slow and the puck actually ended up going behind Yakupov’s desperation slide, despite no discernible delay or fake by Tanev. No fault to Devan Dubnyk: any shot from that area on the ice is tough to stop, especially if it’s a bit of a change-up. The shot wasn’t hard, but it was well-positioned, just inside the right post.

And watch the set-up. He’s so uninvolved with the play at first:

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Makes the smart play to cover for Keith Ballard who is in a puck-battle by going to check Jordan Eberle:

And then cuts in with speed when he sees Henrik Sedin loose with the puck (I know Daniel had it here, but you can’t really see Tanev in the frame when Henrik has the puck. Chances are he dished the puck to Daniel knowing Daniel would be able to set up the trailer). He’s smart enough to know that if you’re in open ice and Henrik Sedin is near the puck, chances are the puck is going to come to you:

Ironically – if Tanev had a good wrist shot, there’s a good chance this game goes to a shootout, and also that some rhinoplasty clinic in Edmonton makes a few bucks fixing Nail Yakupov’s face:

A lot of people know I’m a Chris Tanev fan:

That’s just a sampling. My Twitter mentions absolutely exploded last night.

Here’s hoping No. 2 doesn’t take 72 more games!