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Drive to the Net: How Tanev dogged Penguins

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Brandon Tanev. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

The day before the Fourth, I featured Brandon Tanev's fireworks, such as they are. Flashed a few of his goals, an assist, other creativity that contributed to the Penguins signing him away from Winnipeg out of free agency.

The objective in this, the second installment, is to illustrate the real Tanev.

Not that his career-high 14 goals and 29 points for the Jets this past season were some wintry mirage. Far from it. At age 27, "a late bloomer," as Jim Rutherford described him, he showed unprecedented instinct and confidence in the attacking zone, contributing in every way to a productive, possession-hogging fourth line.

And yet ...

Let's not kid anyone. The real reason he was offered an obvious overpay at six years, $21 million, beyond the realities of the NHL's open market, is that he competed like crazy. And, if one recalls, Rutherford's team couldn't often be accused of doing likewise.

So, in that spirit, I want to use this installment to isolate on two totally random games Tanev played last season -- OK, I'm lying ... they're the two in which the Penguins and Jets met and, thus, the only two of his I witnessed in person -- for a deep-dive study on all his traits. And, either luckily or as a testament to his consistency, all his traits just happened to pop up.

To the video ...

What's above is Tanev's opening shift of the first meeting last November up in Winnipeg. Tanev churns so hard to try to get past Brian Dumoulin that he eventually kicks the puck by him and forces Dumoulin to -- barely -- lean his stick into him. At which point he goes down.

Say what one will about going down too easily -- FYI, dude got leveled by Derick Brassard in this one -- but it comes with benefits: Tanev drew 27 penalties against him last season, including that unfair one on Dumoulin. That's one more than the Penguins' leader, Evgeni Malkin, two more than Sidney Crosby.

Hey, it's part of the game, and it's part of his game.

So's this, and it's lot more wholesome:

Maybe the most common theme through this study was Tanev's effectiveness at exiting the Winnipeg zone. He's not the most gifted defensive player without the puck, and that's held his advanced metrics down. But once he gets it, he and the Jets were gone, and that's an asset unto itself.

Above, Tanev swings to the right for a breakout from linemate Mathieu Perreault. Upon receiving it, he brashly taps it ahead to himself to afford more freedom to get his wheels going. (I love that.) He then knifes in front of Kris Letang to feed right back to a trailing Perreault for a shot on Casey DeSmith.

I have another of those, not as smooth but neat in its own right:

Tanev doesn't accept this Jacob Trouba well, even if it's a bullet off the boards. (Dominik Simon does this exceptionally well, for all you Simon Fan Club members.) But his drive and speed keep him motoring to swipe it away from Letang, then outrace and shoulder off Jake Guentzel to poke the puck deep.

I eagerly await the metric for 50/50 battles like these. I'll bet Tanev would be a star in this single category. Being as fast as he is, he doesn't look big at all, but he's 6 feet, 180 pounds and sturdy.

Speaking of speed:

There's another Trouba breakout, this time up his off-wing. Another bank pass, too. Only this time, Tanev takes it in stride, then whips a 180 to blow by Olli Maatta and take a good shot.

OK, Olli had a ton of trouble with that sort of thing with everyone, but that's another reason I opted to show Tanev against the Penguins, for full and fair context. The skating is still the skating. Speed in the NHL comes with many definitions, and this meets them all. He won't always bury those, but he'll wear down opposing defenses by making them backpedal.

Let's switch now to the meeting in Pittsburgh in early January:

The Penguins won both these games, by the way, 4-3 and 4-0. This one was no contest, in part because the Jets were flatter than the Manitoban plains. But flying in the face of that, Tanev registered a game-high 10 hits -- almost a quarter of his team's 46 -- and, as the shift above demonstrates, they weren't for show. He plows into Tanner Pearson on the far boards to help the Jets keep possession, then skates all the way to the opposite corner to really crunch Maatta and allow for a point shot by Josh Morrissey.

Hits can be stupid. They can be a waste of energy. But Tanev's 278, third-most in the NHL, almost always came with similar purpose. He isn't, say, Tanner Glass, who registered hits mostly to register hits. Watch his movement, especially his head, in the sequence above, to see that his priority is the puck.

This next one's boring ...

... but it's worth it, if only because it's an example of one trait I found strikingly common in his play: He'll hover back, wisely, and await his opportunity to participate.

Not all speed merchants are like this. They'll think their speed can overcome all and, if they're high-energy like Tanev, they'll think that's their job, as well. Not this guy. There's a patience, an intelligence to his approach that Mike Sullivan's going to love almost as much as his linemates will.

Need an F3?

He's got it.

See the loose puck with a chance to pounce?

He's on it.

Parenthetically, a younger forward like Jared McCann, with similar tools but far less patience, might learn from this, and I offer that respectfully.

Last one:

This is Ultimate Tanev. That's a minute and three seconds of Tanev touching the puck five separate times in the Pittsburgh zone, alternately taking the puck from Crosby, Bryan Rust and Jamie Oleksiak while setting up two Winnipeg shots on Matt Murray.

That's what Sullivan means when he repeats "being hard to play against." It isn't about the hitting, at least not foremost. It's about being physical and aggressive toward a pursuit of the puck, then, once there's possession, being relentless in maintaining that possession. The Penguins above had three golden chances to clear. Each time, as if being chased by an overcaffeinated bloodhound, they were thwarted by Tanev.

Imagine if he'd already been in black and gold.

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