Chris Tanev is going to get paid.
The Vancouver Canucks have been in negotiations with the 25-year-old first pairing defenseman’s representatives since late January. This past week, general manager Jim Benning provided an update, suggesting in an appearance on TSN 1040 that contract talks had been productive so far.
“We’ll keep down that path,” Benning said, per NicholsonHockey.com, “and hopefully we’ll get something done here sooner rather than later.”
Tanev is arbitration eligible and will be a restricted free agent for the next two years, so the two sides have plenty of time to come to a long-term agreement. The question is: what should that agreement look like?
During the Headline segment on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman suggested that recently extended blue-liners T.J. Brodie and Marco Scandella were good comparables for Tanev (transcript courtesy NicholsonHockey.com):
Jim Benning said this week that things were going well, at least on the initial contract talks with them. If you look at Tanev’s history, the other history of players this year, there have been a couple of guys with two years before UFA that have signed extensions that have taken them three years through. Marco Scandella – his (annual average value) is 4. T.J. Brodie – his AAV is 4.65. I wonder if that’s kind of the benchmark, or Tanev maybe tries to go a bit higher into 4.8. But he’s a first-pair guy. Doesn’t get a lot of points, but he’s an analytic darling. Fascinating discussion.
If we look beyond the annual average value (AAV) we’ll see that that the restricted and unrestricted seasons of Brodie’s and Scandella’s contracts are valued differently. The cost of Brodie’s two remaining restricted free agent seasons were valued at an average of 4.37 million while his unrestricted seasons were valued at $4.83 million, according to NHLNumbers.com. Scandella’s restricted seasons were valued at an average of $3.375 million while his unrestricted seasons were valued at an average of $4.417 million, according to NHLNumbers.com.
Before we proceed though, we should ask ourselves: are Scandella and Brodie really comparable defensemen for Tanev?
Offensive Production, Experience, and Durability
*Excludes their respective rookie seasons.
Before we get to offensive production let’s handle the experience issue. All of Tanev, Scandella and Brodie broke into the league in 2010-11, and Brodie has played in the most games of the three. In part that’s because Scandella and Tanev have, since their rookie campaigns, spent partial seasons in the American Hockey League. It’s also because Brodie has been more durable.
This will matter in contract talks, and particularly in setting the value of the two restricted seasons Tanev has remaining, because durability and experience counts as admissible evidence in an arbitration hearing (From article 12.9(g)(ii): “the number of games played by the Player, his injuries or illnesses
during the preceding seasons”)
In terms of offensive contributions what really stands out here is that Tanev hasn’t actually been that much less productive than either Scandella or Brodie at even-strength (and, of course, he’s been more productive than Scandella on a per minute basis). The difference in production really comes from Scandella and Brodie logging regular power-play shifts during their NHL careers, while Tanev has very rarely done so.
Generally speaking, we should trust coaches to have a good feel for their players’ skill set, and in Tanev’s case three different coaching staffs have decided that he’s not best used at 5-on-4. Considering the velocity of his slap shot, I doubt many would quibble with that decision.
It’s worth considering though that counting stats aren’t the best way to judge a defenseman’s offensive impact. Alex Edler has only 17 points currently, for example, but that in no way captures the work he does in helping to control play and create a more favourable environment for the Canucks to generate shots and goals.
One thing we can do to try and account for this issue is look at the relative impact a defenseman has on his club’s shots for and goals for rates at 5-on-5. If a player is helping his club generate shots for, then this number should be in the black. If a defenseman isn’t helping his club generate scoring opportunities and goals, then this number will be in the red.
These numbers take into account the four seasons from 2011-12 through to February 16, 2015:
So Tanev has generally been a minor drag on Vancouver’s ability to generate offense – both in terms of shot volume and actual goals scored. Brodie has been a positive in both categories for an offensively limited Flames side, while Scandella has – similarly to Tanev – been a slight negative.
At least in terms of offensive contributions, Brodie has been a more valuable offensive asset than Tanev so far in their respective careers. Based on his ability to produce on the power-play and at 5-on-5, that seems likely to continue.
Time-on-ice is a crucial official NHL statistic for arbitration eligible defenseman.
Though it’ll change later this week when NHL.com relaunches with advanced statistics, in recent history, time-on-ice was the only real stat (aside from hits and blocked shots, which don’t actually correlate with winning) that a useful defensive defenseman could point to as evidence of their significant positive contribution.
How do our three alleged comparables stack up:
So Tanev has logged the least ice-time per game of the three, both this season and in his career. Power-play ice-time, which we discussed following the first table, is part of it, but doesn’t explain it all.
What might explain the career numbers to some extent is that the Canucks have been a much more competitive team over the past five years than the Flames and Wild have, and part of that equation has been superior defensive depth. That’s a tough argument for Tanev’s camp to make though.
In terms of the ice-time argument, the Canucks will have the upper hand in contract negotiations and at arbitration.
Finally we get to defensive contributions. As anyone who legitimately knows the game and has watched him play 10 times or so can tell you: Tanev is an ace defensive player.
A hybrid-type shutdown guy, Tanev’s stick, his defensive positioning and gap control, and his shot blocking ability are ridiculous. That he’s a heads up passer who can get the puck up to the forwards and going the other way quickly makes him that much more deadly when it comes to snuffing out the opposition’s attack.
Tanev is also one of the very best penalty-killers in all of hockey at the moment.
Arguing that he’s an elite defensive asset might be a tough argument for Tanev’s side to make at a potential arbitration hearing, particularly because defensive value is so difficult to quantify. On the other hand, Tanev’s mastery of the defensive side of the puck is so evident that it stands as a major reason these contract talks shouldn’t get to that point.
After all, Benning – a former NHL defenseman himself – knows how valuable Tanev is defensively.
“I think being paired with Chris Tanev has helped his game,” Benning said of Alex Edler’s resurgence during an interview on TSN 1040 in October. “Tanev plays with so much poise and stuff out there, and he settles Alex kind of down.”
In looking to compare Tanev’s defensive impact with Brodie’s and Scandella’s, we’ll try (and fail) to keep it simple. The following table factors in on-ice results for the three defenseman since the 2011-12 season. We’ve included 5-on-5 goal differential (5-on-5 GD), Team-relative unblocked shot attempts against rate (Team Relative FA/60), short-handed ice-time (SH TOI), and Shorthanded team-relative unblocked shot attempts against rate (SH Team Relative SA/60).
A note on the selection of these stats: an awful lot of factors influence goal differential beyond the quality of a defenseman’s play – including goaltending, and the overall quality of their team. Team-relative unblocked shot attempt rate is a metric that is reasonably good at capturing how well a defenseman influences his club’s ability to suppress scoring opportunities at even-strength (by comparing those results to how that team fares when he’s not on the ice). We’ll look at this same unblocked shot attempts against numbers in 4-on-5 situations as well. Shorthanded ice-time is pretty straight forward. Okay let’s get to the table!
A quick note: when it comes to team-relative unblocked shot attempt rates, it’s kind of like golf. You want to be in the red.
In the table above, I factored in all short-handed play for the sake of simplicity, but if we use just 5-on-4 results, Tanev has been the fourth best shot suppressing defenseman on the penalty-kill in hockey (behind P.K. Subban, Marc Staal and Johnny Oduya) over the past four seasons. So Tanev’s in super elite company when it comes to his short-handed play.
Anyway you stack it up really, Tanev is beginning to build the type of resume we’d expect from an elite defensive defenseman. Him and Brodie both rank in the top-five in the entire NHL in suppressing unblocked shot attempts at even-strength, which would suggest that both young blue-liners are already bluechip defensive players.
Overall, and particularly because of his penalty-killing work, I think Tanev provides a bit more defensive value than Brodie does. It’s close though.
If the Canucks are looking to sign Tanev to a Karl Alzner type deal, they’d best think again. The Scandella comparable should essentially eliminate any latent dreams Canucks fans (and maybe management) have of seeing Tanev sign long-term in Vancouver to a contract that pays him less than $4 million on average.
On the other hand, it’s tough to argue that Tanev is a superior player to Brodie. Tanev is better on the penalty-kill, but Brodie’s two-way impact, offensive value and power-play ability makes him a more valuable piece overall.
My opinion: if I’m the Canucks and I’m ready to commit to Tanev long-term, I’m looking at something like a five-year, $21 million contract (hypothetical breakdown $3.6, $4, $4.466, $4.466, $4.466) as a realistic best case scenario. Of course, that would also be my desired end-point, not what I’d be presenting in the preliminary stages of negotiations.
It’s time for the Canucks to take advantage of a significant weapon in the collective bargaining agreement and deflate Tanev’s cap-hit by buying out his remaining restricted seasons and committing to him long-term. He’s one of the league’s best young defensive defenseman and one of the best penalty-killers – full stop.
Because Tanev doesn’t put up points, this could be a complicated process. It’s worth reminding ourselves to be patient and calm and consider how this story develops in perspective. If talks drag out right to the door of an arbitration hearing, that’s fine, so long as the result is a long-term pact.