Tanev brings bite to underdog role

Fighting for every inch of ice is all Jets forward knows


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NASHVILLE — Hockey history is filled with examples of otherwise unheralded players who raise their games when the stakes are highest.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/04/2018 (1862 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

NASHVILLE — Hockey history is filled with examples of otherwise unheralded players who raise their games when the stakes are highest.

The scrappy underdog, if you will, who shows there is plenty of bite to go with their bark.

Which might just be the perfect way to describe Brandon Tanev. Passed over by every team at the draft, Tanev signed a free-agent deal out of college back in March 2016. It was hardly a blockbuster deal for the Jets, as it doesn’t appear there was any kind of bidding war for his services compared with other high-profile players in a similar situation.

Mark Humphrey / The Associated Press Tanev’s role has taken on even greater importance as the playoffs have gotten underway, helping smother Minnesota’s top scorers in a five-game first-round victory and getting similar assignments now against Nashville.

“Brandon enjoyed a tremendously successful collegiate career at Providence and will bring a combination of high-end speed, energy, and physicality that complements the identity of the Winnipeg Jets,” general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said at the time.

Tanev, 26, had shown a knack for scoring timely goals — none bigger than the game-winner for Providence College, which gave them the 2015 NCAA men’s hockey championship over Boston University. But with just 35 goals and 42 assists over 149 college games, the 6-0, 180-pound winger wasn’t expected to provide much offence at the pro level, instead filling a role as a potential bottom-six depth forward who would have to fight for any kind of regular work at the NHL level.

And that’s exactly what happened in his rookie season last year. Tanev played 51 games with the Jets (two goals, two assists), 23 with the Manitoba Moose (two goals, seven assists) and spent some additional time in the press box as a healthy scratch.

None of those numbers really jump off the page or scream NHL regular. In fact, he’s not even the most talented hockey player in his own family. That would be older brother Chris, a defenceman for the Vancouver Canucks.

With even more forward depth this season, Tanev figured to face an even bigger challenge. A demotion to the Moose was possible, perhaps even likely. If you were strictly to use response on social media as a gauge, the masses were not just calling for it, but demanding it. A team with Tanev playing any kind of role was doomed, many shouted in the proverbial echo chamber.

But he seemingly defied the odds, never spending a second on the farm and dressing for 61 NHL games. He scored eight times and added 10 assists while also emerging as an important part of a shutdown line on the NHL’s No. 2 overall team with Adam Lowry and some combination of Joel Armia and Andrew Copp usually mixed in. He even recorded perhaps the most unlikely hat trick in Jets history earlier this season against Boston.

Tanev’s role has taken on even greater importance as the playoffs have gotten underway.

He helped smother Minnesota’s top scorers in a five-game first-round victory and is getting similar assignments now against Nashville.

And the player known by his nickname of “Rusty” has also managed to score a couple goals already, including a huge one late in the first period of Game 1 against the Predators, when the Jets were under siege.

All of which begs the question: Is Brandon Tanev’s game perfectly suited for playoff hockey?

“The game, it’s fun, there’s a lot of excitement out there. I like to play fast and physical. Those are two big parts of my game. And anything I can do to energize my team and get my game going is what I need to do,” the Toronto native said Sunday as his team prepared for Game 2 against Nashville.

With Armia sidelined by injury, Tanev is now on a trio with Lowry and veteran centre Bryan Little, who has moved to the wing.

“It’s nice to get the opportunity to play in the playoffs. And it’s a harder, a faster, a more physical game. I think both Adam and Bryan and myself feed off that game. We trust each other out there. We communicate and make things easy for each other,” Tanev said.

Teams that enjoy playoff success typically have plenty of secondary scoring and contributions from unlikely sources. Tanev said it’s all about being willing to pay a price.

“I think that’s just getting to the net, playing in the dirty areas of the game. And then trusting your teammates to get the puck there to the net,” Tanev said. “Any time the bottom six can chip in offensively, it’s huge. But we understand our role, playing in the defensive zone first, being good there, playing a full 200 (-foot) game. Trust ourselves, be confident and the offensive game will come through.”

Jets head coach Paul Maurice obviously saw something in Tanev that perhaps others didn’t in giving him regular ice-time and an increasingly prominent role.

“Maybe it’s appreciated more in the playoffs. He’s not a big point producer, but his effort level all year — and possibly that’s why those players have the playoffs they do,” Maurice said of Tanev’s early impact.

“Because they push every day, true in November, true in February, banged up. Because a lot of times in their careers, they’re afraid of coming out of the lineup. The mental toughness they need to develop over the course of the year, when they get into the playoffs, they’re built for it.”

Tanev said he never takes his spot for granted, which is part of what makes him tick. He does nothing at half-speed, and that includes the rapid-fire answers he gives whenever approached by media. He’s carved out an important role here — and appears determined to keep fighting for every inch.

“Everybody wants to play in the playoffs. But being physical, playing fast is a big part of my game. I think that’s what I need to continue to do,” he said. “I think you go out there and you understand your role, you understand your game and you play within it. You trust your linemates, you communicate and try to make things easy out there for yourself.”

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @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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