Raise your hand if you had Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev as the Flames’ best defence pairing going into this season?
Arguably, this was the most concerning pair for the Flames. With Mark Giordano taking a bit of a step backwards, the Flames needed Hanifin to take another step forward this season in order to be successful. To do that, they brought in Tanev who has been one of the best defensive defencemen in the league, but who looked to be slowing down last season.
And somehow this pairing just clicked. They started the season not being on the ice for a single 5v5 goal against for. A streak that lasted an incredible 110+ minutes of ice time. And while it may be over, Tanev and Hanifin have easily been the Flames’ best pairing this season, and one of the best in the league. Here are the pairing’s raw numbers so far this season at 5v5 and their ranking against other defense pairings across the league with at least 90 minutes TOI. All data from Natural Stat Trick, and the total sample size is 42 defence pairings.
Their underlying numbers don’t just jump off the page, they fly off. Tanev and Hanifin together has been essentially the best pairing in the entire league.
Keep in mind this isn’t the Flames’ top pairing, it’s their second. All the pairings that put up similar or better numbers are other team’s top pairings, like Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot in Montreal. These pairings typically have higher offensive zone starts, and are relied on for their scoring prowess. Tanev and Hanifin have started just 40% of their shifts in the offensive zone, which makes their numbers even more impressive.
Breaking down Hanifin
Coming into this season, there were lots of questions surrounding this duo. For Hanifin, who was one of the central players in the Dougie Hamilton deal a few years ago, there were questions around whether he could take another step forward. At 24 and with 270 NHL games under his belt, there were many who felt that he had reached his ceiling as an average second pairing defenceman. But there was always the thought that if the Flames were to make a deep run in the playoffs, they would need him to take another step.
So far, he’s taken that step. Hanifin has three points in 11 games, good for third among Flames’ defenceman, all while not playing any powerplay minutes at all. At 5v5, he leads the team in shot attempts for, ahead of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. He also leads all Flames’ defencemen in individual scoring chances for and individual high danger chances for with 14 and three respectively. To learn more about these stats, check out our primer.
Looking back over his time in the NHL as provided by HockeyViz.com, Hanifin’s underlying numbers this season are the best of his career. Looking at the top row denoting expected goals for (xGF) while he is on the ice, Hanifin has been a net positive offensive player at 5v5. When he is on the ice, the Flames’ expected goals for is vastly improved, even from the last two seasons.
Where the numbers really change are on defense, where the Flames’ expected goals against (xGA) drops into the negatives when Hanifin is on the ice (negative means less than average expected goals against). The team gives up fewer chances when he is playing, and are below zero for the first time in Hanifin’s career. This is incredibly impressive for a defenceman who was thought to be offensively focused and struggled to play defence.
Breaking down Tanev
There was a lot of risk with bringing in Tanev this season. He’s 31 years old, signed to a four-year deal with a modified no-trade clause, and had looked to be declining over the last couple of years. Heck, he couldn’t look good playing alongside Quinn Hughes in Vancouver last season.
But Tanev has proven the naysayers wrong this season so far. He makes sharp passes up the ice, is stout defensively, and even has gotten a couple of great scoring chances on net. Off the ice, he has spent time with some of the younger guys after practice to help them improve their game. He has been a leader across the board, and has shown why the Flames offered him a contract this season.
While he did score a goal against the Winnipeg Jets earlier in the week, he is lauded as a defensive defenceman. His offensive totals are never going to jump off the board, but one would expect that the Flames look better defensively with him on the ice.
Looking at his numbers, Tanev’s defensive numbers have taken a big step forward this season. While not quite as good as his average -8.94 xGA versus average, Tanev’s defensive numbers have been much better than league average, and this has shown clearly all season long. The Flames have clearly looked better with him on the ice.
Offensively, he is also putting up some of the best numbers he has had over the last few seasons. While not above league average, The Flames are sitting at -3.5 xGF when he is on the ice. Not bad for a very defensive defenceman.
Why has this worked?
This is the big question. Hanifin and Tanev have had no previous time together to form any chemistry, and are just clicking together. I think the reason is that having a strong defensive partner like Tanev has allowed Hanifin to deploy his offensive weapons knowing that he has a partner behind him who can get back should the play go back the other way.
This was clearly exemplified on Andrew Mangiapane‘s first goal of the season against the Winnipeg Jets, which was assisted by Hanifin.
Mangiapane makes a great play up ice and gets a scoring chance. Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk tie up the play in the corner and the puck squirts to the middle. Hanifin jumps up from the blue line and gets a chance in tight which is stopped by Connor Hellebuyck. The rebound is picked up by Mangiapane who puts it in the back of the net.
Here is what’s key. When the puck is in the corner, all five Jets skaters converge in the corner, which allows Hanifin to feel comfortable making the move to the middle of the ice.
In this image you can only see four Flames’ skaters. The fifth Flame on the ice is Tanev, but where is he?
Hanging out near his own blueline should the Flames be unable to make the play and the puck comes back up the ice.
Hanifin has been known for his love of jumping up into the play, but last year Travis Hamonic was just not able to stop plays going back the other way. With Tanev as the last man back, the Flames have looked much stronger, and have been able to limit scoring chances against.
Too good, but it’s true
We all knew that at some point someone would get a goal at 5v5 against Tanev and Hanifin, but that does not take away from just how good the two have been together. Hanifin finally has a partner who can have his back in the offensive zone, and has developed a better read on 50/50 plays.
Tanev has looked much better defensively this season than last. Whether that is because Hanifin has been covering back better than Hughes did last season or Tanev just has a new spark to his game, we don’t know. What we know is that this pairing is clicking right now, and hope that it can continue to be a force at both ends of the ice all season long.
What are your thoughts on the Tanev and Hanifin pairing so far this season? Let us know in the comments or on social media.