Chris Tanev is not a remarkable hockey player, as his game features no flash. The defenceman can easily go unnoticed. He didn't score a goal until his 63rd game in the NHL. The story of his rapid rise, however, is indeed remarkable.
He's 23. Tanev, 6 foot 2, 185 pounds, came into his size late, after he had finished high school, and never played major junior. He went undrafted. After one year at the Rochester Institute of Technology, he was signed as a free agent by the Vancouver Canucks – and a year later played the last three games of the Stanley Cup final. Even as the Canucks were mauled by the Boston Bruins in the last two matches, giving up nine goals, Tanev – at 21 – was rock steady, on the ice for just a single goal.
Tuesday night in Vancouver, it was much the same, even as Vancouver lost. Against the visiting San Jose Sharks, the Canucks fell down 2-0, tied it up, but lost 3-2 in a shootout. Their record slides to 11-6-5, though Vancouver maintains a three-point lead in the feeble Northwest Division. But even as Vancouver went down, Tanev was as usual a pillar, the Canucks ceding no goals while he was on the ice.
Captain Henrik Sedin rued Vancouver's oh-for-six power play. The Canucks not only didn't score, they ceded a short-handed goal. For the season, the Canucks have the 20th-ranked power play in the NHL, compared with fourth last year, and first the year before. The power play began to fall apart about this time last year -- and the team has never been able to figure out how to resuscitate it.
"If your power play is minus-one, it's tough to win games," said Sedin in the locker room. "Our power play should have come through for us."
Even though the power play failed to click, Tanev's work was on quiet display from the start. On his first shift, as San Jose centre Tim Kennedy pushed toward the Vancouver zone, Tanev, skating low and backward, delivered a swift poke-check to diffuse the play and help send his team on the attack. Later, midway through the third, a sliding Tanev blocked a pass down low near the Vancouver net, quashing a promising play with the game tied.
The poke-check is Tanev's most potent defensive weapon. It's a tool the Toronto-born player honed through his teenage years, always smaller than the other boys growing up, such as during his time in Junior A playing for the Markham Waxers. That's when he caught the eye of Dave Gagner, who was coaching in the OHL before he joined the Canucks as director of player development in 2008.
"I couldn't push people off the puck. It's something I grew up doing. I had to," said Tanev in an interview before the Tuesday night game. It remains true: the NHL features many opponents bigger than Tanev is – even though he can well handle bigger players in front of the net. "I'm still not as strong as a lot of these guys, so it's something I have to focus on, always having my stick in a good place."
On Tuesday, the Canucks were down early, as former Montreal Canadien and current reclamation project Scott Gomez scored from the high slot, his first of the year. Then, in the second, San Jose grinder Adam Burish scored his first of the year, on a short-handed breakaway. Vancouver banged back – including an impressive Jannik Hansen goal to tie – but lost in the shootout.
Beyond Tanev's solid defensive play, he displayed toughness Tuesday. In the first, after defensive partner Alex Edler turned over the puck in the Canucks zone, Tanev went to block a shot and took it on the right knee. He hobbled off the ice, to the dressing room, but was back quickly thereafter.
Most of all, for Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, Tanev is reliable – which was often easily contrasted with the erratic play of Edler on Tuesday.
"You're not going to get any surprises," said Vigneault of Tanev recently. "You're going to a guy that makes a good first pass, doesn't get beat one-on-one, might not overpower anybody but has got a good stick. And once he gets the puck, it's out. So because there's no surprises, you're confident with what he can do on the ice."
This is Tanev's first complete season with the Canucks, having joined the club full-time last winter after his last stint in the minors. He's become one of the team's primary D-man. He started the year on the third D pairing with Keith Ballard but has played games with Dan Hamhuis and Edler, as he is something the Canucks lack, a natural right-side defender, especially with Kevin Bieksa missing his second consecutive game with a groin injury.
Unfortunately for the Canucks, they may also be without Ballard. After two games as a healthy scratch, following a stretch of poor play, Ballard returned to the ice Tuesday night and played fairly well. However, in the third period the rearguard suffered a charley horse, likely on a hit from Vancouver native Bracken Kearns, who at 31 was playing in just his sixth NHL game ever. Kearns's father Denny was a Canucks defenceman through the 1970s and Kearns had been a career minor leaguer before booking his first five games with the Florida Panthers last year. Tuesday night was his first with the Sharks.
Tanev is hardly perfect. He basically doesn't score, or even book assists. He has seven points in 76 NHL games, four of them – one goal – coming this year. Also, of Vancouver's six main D-men, Tanev has played the weakest opposing players, according to behindthenet.com. But with the likes of Edler, the Canucks have offensive threats on defence. Tanev fits in well as a defensive stalwart.