When the Calgary Flames signed Tanev in the offseason, there were questions around his effectiveness going into this season, but even more so around what value he would bring to the team over the following three seasons. Signed at the age of 30, the age in which players typically start to see their production turn downwards, there were a lot of concerns around whether he could still be an effective defensive defenceman in the NHL.
When it comes to signing players, NHL general managers have to strike a tricky balance—in particular with older players. They want to hold these players’ contracts when they are good, but have them either on very low cost deals to be veteran players in the room (see Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Jason Spezza), or trade them while their value is high to another team in order to use the cap space to acquire a younger player.
How was Tanev this season?
Tanev clearly proved the naysayers wrong this season. Not only did he bounce back from a rough final season with the Canucks in 2019–20, he was the Flames’ best defenceman this season. Paired with Noah Hanifin for most of the season, the duo was not on the ice for a single goal against in their first 110 minutes together and were among the best pairings in the league. While they did see a bit of a drop off as the season went on, they remained the Flames’ best pairing, and when Hanifin suffered a season-ending injury, it was Tanev’s steady play that gave the Flames some hope of pushing through the final bit of the season.
Let’s look at the 5v5 numbers from Natural Stat Trick:
|Rank among Flames defencemen||1st||2nd||1st||1st|
|Rank among all NHL defencemen (min 100 mins)||18th||9th||4th||6th|
Tanev was the Flames’ best defenceman, and on top of that was one of the best defencemen in the entire league. While he was on the ice, the Flames were incredible at producing offensively, producing the highest number of shots on net for than when any other player was at 5v5. They also only allowed 23 goals against when he was on the ice, and this while Tanev led all Flames skaters in time on ice. Below is is isolated impact from hockeyviz.com.
He was also among the best defencemen in the league. With the numbers that the Flames put up when he was on the ice, if there was a Selke for defencemen, he’d be a strong favourite. While he himself did not add much offensively, he was an absolute machine defensively. With blue being better in the bottom chart, when Tanev is on the ice, oppositing teams get next to no shots from right in front of the net. You could not ask for more from a top-four defenceman.
So what should the Flames do with Tanev? There’s a few things to consider when it comes to their on-ice product as well as their asset management.
The case for trading Tanev
If he’s so good then why is moving him even a discussion? The biggest reason to move him is simply the aforementioned asset management. Tanev has just turned 31 years old, and is signed for $4.5 million dollars a season for the next three years. The case for trading him makes sense. He is a 31-year-old defenceman who is probably not going to get any better tied to a contract that just screams buyout in 2023.
Even when he was signed, there were questions around his effectiveness relative to the value of his contract. Four years for a player with a history of injuries led to skeptics coming out with disapproval towards the contract. Despite the good first year, when he does invariably encounters a drop off in his defence, will it be a steady decline or will he fall off a proverbial cliff?
While there is no answer to that, one thing that is a reasonably safe bet is that Tanev likely won’t do much better than he did this season, and you probably could not ask for more from him than this year. Time is never on any aging player’s side when it comes to their value, which in Tanev’s case will limit GM Brad Treliving from moving him as easily.
It would be smart business for the Flames to look at moving him this season simply because there is an impending dropoff in his production coming down the road. And maybe it won’t happen until year three or even year four of the deal, but at some point his production will go the way of Captain Mark Giordano, and the Flames will be stuck with $4.5 million dollars in dead cap space that they won’t be able to move. With the cap expected to remain flat, that cap space could be used to sign some of the Flames’ younger defencemen longer term.
Cash is king, and Tanev takes up a lot of it right now. Even though he defied the odds and doubters, he inadvertently brought his perceived value to an all-time high. This may be the time to move him, and use both the cap space and returns to invest in the Flames’ future.
The case against trading Tanev
Given the moves that the Flames are making, the team is signalling that they are in “win now” mode. From hiring a head coach with Stanley Cup winning experience, to acquiring an elite goaltender, the Flames are not in the mood to throw in the towel and rebuild. This may be a decision based on a belief that this core is good enough to win, or it may be a financial reason that the team needs to recoup money after the losses brought on from the pandemic, but in either case, the Flames expect to compete for the Cup.
What that means then is that if the Flames look to trade Tanev to help strengthen their forward group—the area that probably needs the most work—they make their defence core substantially worse. Tanev’s value on the ice this season far outpaced his salary, and whoever the Flames would bring in to replace him would either be a lateral move costing just as much or more, or would be a downgrade with a slight decrease in value. This does not feel like a win.
What this year’s Stanley Cup final four has shown is the importance of having a strong defence core to build off of. From Montreal’s big-three to the entire New York Islanders defence-first mentality, the Flames do not have the pieces to compete at that level without Tanev. Giordano is aging, and unless Noah Hanifin can continue his form from last season, Rasmus Andersson can rebound from a terrible last season, and Juuso Valimaki can take a massive step forward, the Flames will be going back to the well to try and find a replacement for Tanev.
On top of that, where the Flames’ depth chart is weakest on the right side of their defence. Aside from Tanev, the only other right shot defenceman on the Flames is Andersson. In the AHL, the Stockton Heat have Johannes Kinnvall, who is set to start his first season in North America. Beyond that, they only have Jake Boltmann, who will be starting his official rookie season with Notre Dame next year.
Barring the Flames specific 2021 NHL Entry Draft path of somehow being able to select Brandt Clarke—who is ranked seventh in TWC’s consolidated draft rankings—and him miraculously being ready to play in the NHL this upcoming season, they would need to make some major moves to shore up their defence.
Tanev fills a need for the team now. Better yet, he brings a whole lot of value on the ice. Trading him away for new assets signifies that the Flames are reconsidering their competitive window, which is unlikely. Further, he’s been the alternate captain in a handful of games this past season. That’s not someone the Flames will see as dispensable as this point on their roadmap.
What makes the most sense?
What this really comes down to is a debate between the business side of the game, yielding the highest return for assets and minimizing contracts where the payment is greater than on ice performance, versus the on-ice product, what is going to win the cup right now given the options available.
If the Flames were to trade Tanev, would they be able to find a replacement who cost less and was younger? Almost certainly not. And if they traded Tanev, do they have the internal options to replace him and still be competitive? Definitely not.
There are the intangibles of his fit in the locker room, role as a leader for the team’s younger defenceman, and the fact that Tanev is too important to this team to risk losing in expansion, let alone by trade. While the Flames do not have much in the way of trade chips to dangle to help improve the team, the Flames likely take a major short-term loss on whatever they trade Tanev for. If the aim is to be a competitive team for the next few years, moving the team’s best defenceman—and arguably one of the best in the league at playing defence too—does not make hockey sense for the Flames.