Chris Tanev is having a season for the ages. In fact, it’s the kind of season that should be attracting attention from all corners of the National Hockey League. In typical Tanev fashion, however, the way he is going about his business this season is so remarkably understated that he isn’t getting noticed by many — and that includes NHL referees.
Tanev heads into the all-star break having gone a mind-boggling 33 games without a penalty. Not a hook, not a hold, not a trip, not even a rolling puck that sailed over the glass and out of play for a silly delay of game penalty. Nothing. Absolutely nothing since a visit to the box on November 4th in the Canucks 13th game of the season. Since then his rap sheet has been completely clean which is remarkable when you consider how much he plays. Making his penalty-free run even more impressive is that fact that almost every time Tanev’s on the ice he’s matched up against the other team’s top players. And all of this comes at a point in time when it’s universally agreed players have never been bigger or faster or harder to defend. And none of that seems to matter to Tanev who just goes about his business of battling the best in the business and doing it with savvy body positioning and sublime stick awareness.
The following chart shows all of NHL defensemen this season who have played more than 300 minutes and taken two (or fewer) trips to the penalty box. Look at the time on ice column on the right. No one else is in Tanev’s league this season.
The gap simply shouldn’t be that wide. These are all guys playing the same position in the same league and when it comes to playing penalty free, Chris Tanev is skating circles around his blueline brethren. Tanev’s season is so remarkable that on a recent night, his own defense partner Alex Edler took three minor penalties in one game — in one night, the guy Tanev shares the ice with spent more time in the penalty box than Tanev has all season. On the year, Edler has 44 penalty minutes to Tanev’s four.
And in the Canucks last outing against Nashville, both Matt Bartkowski (tripping) and Ben Hutton (hooking) were whistled for infractions. Penalties happen. Well, apparently they happen to everybody but Chris Tanev who is having the type of season seen only once in the past decade.
The following chart shows the 10 players in the past 10 years who have played at least 70 games in a season with four or fewer penalty minutes. Note that Jamie McBain is the only defender on the list:
Now all of the above evidence should serve as a pretty compelling case for Chris Tanev to win the Lady Byng Trophy this season. But he probably won’t. One of the NHL’s dirty little secrets is that only once in the past 50 years has a defenseman won the award presented annually ‘to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.’ Florida’s Brian Campbell stands alone in the 2011-12 season when he had six penalty minutes along with 53 points.
And that’s the problem with the award and with Tanev’s chances of being singled out. Somewhere along the trail the Lady Byng has become the award for the guy with the most points and fewest penalty minutes. Members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association who vote on the award just look at the first page of the league scoring leaders and find their candidates there. Well, Tanev is never going to show up on the first page — or the first 10 pages for that matter — when it comes to putting up points.
But we’re in the information age where more statistical evidence than ever before is available to those voters about a player’s ability and the impact he can have on a game. And these days that goes well beyond goals and assists. These are smart and seasoned hockey writers who should want to scratch beneath the surface and collect all the data when it comes to recognizing the best possible candidates for year-end league awards.
Chris Tanev has developed into one of the best defensive defensemen in the game. And the fact he’s been able to do so while playing within the bounds of the rules is a remarkable achievement, an admirable quality and something that deserves some league-wide recognition.
Nobody every starts into the season with the goal of winning the Lady Byng trophy in mind. And yet every year it’s presented, so somebody has to get it. There are lots of strong candidates having fine seasons many of them which much higher profiles than Chris Tanev. That doesn’t make them more deserving of the honour, but it certainly makes them much stronger candidates. And that’s a shame.
However it plays out, I’m sure you won’t hear Chris Tanev grumble about things. That could be construed as unsportsmanlike conduct. And he’s shown time and time again this season, that’s simply not the kind of guy he is.