With the news that Kevin Bieksa has started practicing with the team again, the next step will be his return to the Canucks lineup, maybe even as early as tomorrow's game against Detroit. This means that one of the Canucks' current defensemen will be hitting the pressbox, unless Sami Salo breaks again. It's almost a certainty that the odd man out will be Chris Tanev. The reasons are numerous: he's an inexperienced rookie, he's not yet used to the long haul of an NHL schedule, and Aaron Rome has kidnapped Vigneault's children and is holding them for ransom in a ploy to get more ice-time.
You will notice, however, that none of those reasons mention the quality of Tanev's play. Part of this is that it's been very difficult to properly assess Tanev: the word that keeps coming to commentator's lips is "poised", but poise is remarkably hard to quantify. It's hard to miss his lack of panic with the puck and his ability to make good outlet passes; mentally, he seems ready for the NHL and certainly has a higher ceiling than someone like Aaron Rome. But is he currently ready physically for the NHL, particularly the grind of the playoffs? Alain Vigneault has stated that Tanev won't be returned to the minors and that he has been impressed with his play, but he'll likely see significant time in the pressbox; come playoff time, with Alex Edler and Andrew Alberts returning, will Tanev see any playing time at all? Would his development be better served playing more significant minutes with the Manitoba Moose?
To help answer some of these questions, I want to take a look at Tanev's history and some of Tanev's statistics over his 27-game stint with the Canucks. All of the statistics are from NHL.com and behindthenet.ca, with the minimum games played set to 20.
Most of the focus for Tanev has been on his remarkable growth spurt that changed his hockey fortunes from being unable to find a place to play to the NHL in just 5 years. At the age of 16, Tanev was 5'0" and 100 lbs. Now he's 6'2", 185 lbs, and still growing into his frame. For some perspective, he's the same height as Christian Ehrhoff but almost 20 pounds lighter. Manny Malhotra is 6'2", but weighs 220 lbs. At the age of 21, Tanev still has some time to grow.
Unfortunately, he's not going to fill out that frame this season. As poised as he has been on the ice, he's taken a lot of punishment, finding himself on the receiving end of hit after hit. To his credit, he takes hits to make plays and is able to avoid some checks, but he frequently gets knocked down and outmuscled along the boards. He does not yet have NHL-level strength, which is an especially daunting prospect as the Canucks approach the playoffs. As the intensity ratchets up and the physical play increases, there is a concern that Tanev will not be able to handle it.
That said, Tanev's quick adjustment to the speed of the NHL game is a credit to his abilities and his intelligence. Although he averages only 13:54 in ice-time, Vigneault has not been shy about using him in difficult situations. With Ehrhoff continuing to get prime offensive opportunities, the rest of the defense has started the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone and Tanev is no exception. Tanev starts in the offensive zone only 43.5% of the time: amongst Canucks defensemen, only Andrew Alberts has started more in the defensive zone. He moves the puck in the right direction as well: he finishes his shifts in the offensive zone 52.2% of the time, second only to Christian Ehrhoff amongst Canucks defensemen. The major difference is that Ehrhoff starts in the offensive zone 60.4% of the time, leading all Canucks defensemen.
Tanev's CORSI rating shows further proof of his ability to move the puck up ice: he has the third highest CORSI amongst Canucks defensemen with a +9.59 rating, behind only Ehrhoff and Hamhuis. And his rating is not due to playing against scrubs: his quality of competition is third amongst Canucks defensemen behind Bieksa and Hamhuis, and his quality of teammates is second worst amongst Canucks defensemen. Despite his limited icetime, Tanev is facing tough competition with poor linemates and keeps the puck moving in the right direction. Remarkably, he's managed to do so without taking a single penalty.
These statistics confirm what we're seeing on the ice: Tanev makes smart plays that move the puck out of the defensive zone with possession. The key word there is possession. Jim Jamieson got a great quote from Tanev's father: "When he got the puck in the corner I always made him wait and make the pass to somebody's stick, and he's been doing that from a very young age." This is one of the reasons he's absorbing so many hits, however, as he avoids simply banking the puck off the glass, preferring to make a pass that retains possession. Unlike many rookie defensemen who hang on to the puck too long because they're unsure what to do with it, Tanev hangs on to the puck because he knows exactly what to do with it. This patience is one of his best qualities, but also one of the reasons he's taking so much physical punishment.
It's understandable that the Canucks would want to keep Tanev around in case of further injuries, but I can't help but think that a prospect of his caliber would be better served playing big minutes in all situations with the Manitoba Moose as they head into the playoffs. With the Canucks, Tanev gets under 14 minutes of icetime per night, minimal time on the penalty kill, and no time whatsoever on the powerplay. Mind you, his development wasn't hurt too much when he was unable to find a team to play for at the age of 16, so my concerns are likely overblown. Suffice it to say, I'm a big fan of Tanev and I look forward to watching him develop as a Canuck.