Tanev playing his way out of town

It’s a question that might have got you laughed out of the room up until just a few months ago: where would the Winnipeg Jets be without Brandon Tanev?

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/01/2019 (1480 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s a question that might have got you laughed out of the room up until just a few months ago: where would the Winnipeg Jets be without Brandon Tanev?

After all, the team wasn’t exactly touted in hockey circles as landing a big fish when they signed the undrafted 24-year-old winger out of Providence College in the spring of 2016.

There was no high-profile bidding war for his services, no public waiting game to see which franchise he chose, as we’ve seen with other college free agents. No, the move was mostly met with a collective shoulder shrug from the fan base.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Jets' Brandon Tanev (13) practises during training camp Wednesday morning.

Ho-hum, nothing to see here. Wake us up when this team finally does something significant, right?

But a funny thing happened on the way to Tanev simply becoming a mostly forgettable, replacement-level depth piece who bounces between the NHL and AHL.

Now 27, Tanev is not only a permanent fixture in the Jets lineup, but one of the more valuable members of a top-tier team with Stanley Cup aspirations.

There may not be a lot of sizzle to his game but there’s plenty of steak. What he may lack in flash he more than makes up in dash. While captain Blake Wheeler is the heart and soul of the team, Tanev is the engine that never quits.

He is the type of complementary player you need to win a championship. And there is absolutely nobody else on the Jets, or in the organization, quite like him.

Now he’s added an offensive element to his game that few saw coming.

Entering play Friday night at Bell MTS Place against the Detroit Red Wings, only four Jets skaters have more goals this season than the career-high nine scored by Tanev. Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor all see bigger minutes, play with more offensively talented linemates and get substantial power-play time, which Tanev doesn’t get a sniff of.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods Winnipeg Jets' Brandon Tanev celebrates after scoring against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tanev has matched his career high in goals already this season but the shutdown winger says his defensive-zone play is his priority.

And yet, a player who is 13th on the team in ice time is making every moment count. No, you likely won’t see many of his tallies make the weekly highlight reel, as he typically scores on rebounds or deflections that come from going hard to the net and getting to the dirty areas of the ice that aren’t always a lot of fun to play in.

The goals are nice, of course. But Tanev still does his most important work when he doesn’t have the puck.

He’s ferocious on the forecheck, has speed to burn, is part of an above-average penalty killing unit and has a defence-first mentality that has earned him all kinds of trust with head coach Paul Maurice and his staff, who often put Tanev’s line out against the other team’s best to shut them down. Usually with positive results.

Tanev is rarely caught out of position and is the team’s most physical player, with 133 hits. That’s 20 more than linemate Adam Lowry. Defenceman Ben Chiarot is third with 88, and Mathieu Perreault is fourth with 59, to put Tanev’s numbers into perspective.

Tanev also leads Jets forwards in blocked shots with 46 (Wheeler is second with 35), and many of them are of the “Oh my goodness that’s a season-ending injury, oh wait, he’s back up” variety. I mean, the guy has a pain tolerance that puts the rest of us to shame.

He’s never met a slapshot he hasn’t wanted to step in front of. He eats vulcanized rubber for breakfast. And that makes him one of the most respected and admired players among his teammates, who appreciate the sacrifices he routinely makes for the greater good.

Despite all of this, he still has critics. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t hear from someone on social media telling me how it makes no sense than someone like Nic Petan is a healthy scratch while someone like Tanev gets a regular NHL shift.

Tanev is ferocious on the forecheck, has speed to burn, is part of an above-average penalty killing unit and has a defence-first mentality. (John Woods/ The Canadian Press)

Granted, the volume of negativity has quieted down in recent weeks as Tanev must have some of those keyboard warriors eating their words with his play, which has clearly taken a major step. But it’s still out there, remarkably.

Now, I hate to be the bearer of bad news or rain on the parade, but it isn’t all sunshine and roses when it comes to Tanev. In fact, there is one big negative to what he’s doing this season: he is likely playing his way out of town.

If you haven’t noticed, Tanev is a pending unrestricted free agent. At the rate he’s going, he’s going to deserve a significant raise from the US$1.15 million he’s making this season.

As much as general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff will want to reward him, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where that’s even possible.

Already tight to the US$79.5-million salary cap this season once performance bonuses are added in, the Jets are likely going to have even less room to spare next season when the ceiling is expected to rise to around US$83 million.

That’s because Wheeler’s extension will kick in (a US$2.6-million per season increase), Laine and Connor will be getting huge raises out of their expiring entry-level contracts, Jacob Trouba will once again be a restricted free agent likely deserving of a pay bump. Andrew Copp is also a pending RFA, while Josh Morrissey will be one year away from a major hike.

Finding a way to keep Tanev is going to be difficult. Some cold, hard decisions are going to have to be made. What he’s doing this season isn’t happening in a bubble. Teams around the NHL can clearly see his value to the Jets, and I suspect many will be lining up to bid for his services and offer him the kind of money and perhaps term that Winnipeg simply won’t be able to afford.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Brandon Tanev will have his mom cheering for him tonight when he faces off against his older brother Christopher in Vancouver.

Where would the Jets be without Tanev?

We may soon learn the answer to that. It would be a shame, really, for the Jets to lose a beloved member of the team essentially because he drastically outplayed his contract. But such is the reality of the NHL in a salary-cap world.

Like Tanev taking a slapper to his shins, it’s likely going to hurt. And maybe leave a mark. Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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