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Leafs betting Tanev deal will pay immediate dividends


How many years does Chris Tanev have left as a stalwart defenceman?

That is the question general manager Brad Treliving and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ front office is chewing on right now.

Toronto, as an organization, has not been shy adding veteran defenders who may be in the twilight of their respective careers, and this Tanev gambit may be the most fascinating one yet — if not because he’s the most capable blueliner they’ve added in some time, then because of the anticipated contractual risk centred on the 34-year-old defenceman.

Toronto moved to acquire Tanev’s rights on Saturday by way of the Dallas Starswith looming reports of a hefty long-term extension at play. Like most teams in this cap ceiling-challenged era, Toronto doesn’t have endless flexibility on their books, and flattening Tanev’s cap hit by going with a longer-term deal makes this type of roster addition possible.

I need not go into excruciating detail over the inherent risks of signing a soon-to-be 35-year-old skater to a long-term contract. These deals rarely age well (across the board, player performance tends to fall off a cliff as players cross their mid-30s); right now, the Toronto bet is that Tanev will give them much more on the front end of the deal than the challenges his contract may pose on the tail end.

But make no mistake, Tanev still has serious game, and I can only imagine the Maple Leafs front office watching him dominate this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.

I emphasize the postseason because I think that’s where Tanev priced in his next contract. The versatile two-way defender can give opponents fits — he rarely makes mistakes with the puck on his stick, can ignite a transition on his own, and rarely sees himself played out of position off the puck.

During the postseason, Dallas outscored their opponents 17-11 (+6) with Tanev on the ice, despite his pairing (primarily with Esa Lindell) routinely facing the most difficult of competition. If you look at the 10 forwards Tanev most regularly faced – all exceeding 50 minutes of head-to-head ice time – you see how broadly these forwards struggled to win those minutes:


Jack Eichel and Jonathan Marchessault. Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. Connor McDavid and Zach Hyman. These aren’t just tough draws, they’re some of the best forwards in the world. The Oilers top line may have been able to squeak out small advantage play in those minutes against Tanev, but to a man, every forward on this list saw a meaningful step down in their production when facing the Tanev pairing.

Most notably, expected goal rates, by and large, showed decisively in Dallas’ favour with Tanev deployed – a good sign this wasn’t just a three-week explosion of puck luck with Tanev on the ice. That is precisely what Toronto is looking for to anchor a top-four pairing.

In short, Tanev is a major addition to this Maple Leafs lineup. Year one of this contract should pay serious dividends, and his style of play should lend itself well to aging more gracefully than his peers.

That said, Father Time remains undefeated. And if Tanev’s game does start to decay sooner than expected, discussion is quickly going to turn towards retirement — the only way out of the term of this deal.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey