Why a Tanev-Liljegren swap would be against the Leafs’ best interests

One of the things about being a long time follower, and eventually a writer covering two different teams, is that when they intersect, they intersect hard, and in insufferable fashion. Such has been the case with the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs for much of my life, but especially recently as the two teams have definitively hit two separate stages in their rebuilds. The Leafs now look ready to make a push towards their first legitimate Stanley Cup run in over a decade, and the Canucks, well, they claim to have given up on the “rebuild on the fly” concept and might take this seriously.

Who knows how much of that is true; after all, this is a team that extended Jim Benning’s contract for multiple years, a decision that can only really be justified with “the devil you know”, and polarizing defenceman Erik Gudbranson followed this morning with an extension of his own. The latter is encouraging from a Leafs perspective; there was gossip back in January that Toronto would be interested in him, and anything that forces that possibility away from them is a bit of a bullet dodged, given his player archetype is something along the lines of “Roman Polak, but taller, younger, and expecting more money”.

But that leads us to Chris Tanev, who the Canucks have claimed for months and years to be off the table, might finally be an asset for the floor to weigh in on. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman mentioned the possibility. on Saturday night’s second-intermission “Headlines” segment:

“What I’ve been told is that the Canucks have told teams, including, I believe, Toronto, ‘If you’re serious, it’s going to take a special offer to do this.”

Friedman also mentioned the awareness that Vancouver’s younger players will need to play minutes to thrive in their rebuild transition period, which is something that Tanev, for better or worse, would get in the way of. After all, the Canucks defenceman has found himself ranked in Vancouver’s Top-3 in average ice time for four consecutive seasons, playing about 20 minutes a night since 2013/14. Such usage isn’t overly surprising because Tanev is a very good, and in today’s game, very unique defenceman.

As the general style of top-level hockey has become a game of higher skill and higher pace, it’s become increasingly apparent that “stay at home” defencemen, ones who don’t contribute much to their team’s offence but do their best to keep the puck out of their net, are an antiquated concept. Find a guy that is sold as a “defensive specialist“, and you’re likely to find that their team gets heavily outshot when they’re on the ice, to the point where it’s impossible to argue that they’re contributing much.

Tanev isn’t quite that. He is one of a rare breed: a frequent playing, non-sheltered defenceman with little offensive upside, but an ability to drive differential. The Canucks take fewer shots with him on the ice; the only area of the offensive zone that you see get more productive with playing is usually the other side of the point, because his left-side partner (this year, it’s typically been Ben Hutton or Michael Del Zotto) knows that if Chris has the puck, he’s not the one shooting it. But year after year, he makes up for that with just how few shots he gives up, outpacing his negative offensive impact with his positive defensive impact in seven of eight seasons.

This stems from several different elements in his game. Tanev isn’t scared to hit opponents, but does so very sparingly, knowing that that keeping himself involved in the play is more important than being physical. He’ll position himself well to eliminate options for his opponents, he’ll use his stick to break up plays, and for years, he was an incredibly frequent shot blocker, meaning that the attempts that he wasn’t able to prevent would still stay out of the way of his goaltenders. Tanev is a defensive defenceman; one who forces his opponents into trouble, but doesn’t get into it himself. Despite his commitment to shutting players down, Tanev has just 62 penalty minutes in his 386-game career; in most cases, people would be happy with “just” 62 penalty minutes from their shutdown defenceman in a season.

So, Tanev and the Leafs sounds like a match made in heaven, right? Toronto isn’t the strongest defensively and has at times gotten themselves into some penalty trouble. Tanev is a big body (6’2, 195 every day), shoots right-handed, is one of the few people in the league you can say “defensively aware” about and mean it and is very disciplined. He’s even from East York! It was meant to be!

I’m not so sure, and that’s not a knock on him.

“Something special” is the key here, and if you’ve been on the Internet for more than 30 seconds between October and now, you know what something special means to many in Vancouver; fans, analysts, reporters, and everything in between. Something special is Timothy Liljegren.

Well, it’s at least Timothy Liljegren. Sometimes it’s Liljegren and a 1st round pick. Sometimes it’s Liljegren and Kasperi Kapanen, or Andreas Johnsson, or someone else. Maybe if someone is particularly bullish, they skip on Timoth all together and ask for a Mitch Marner or William Nylander type player, but since those two proved themselves to be young NHL stars rather than just blue chip prospects, that talk has mostly died.

Liljegren, as you probably know, is the Leafs’ #1 prospect in the organization. Toronto drafted him in what can only be described as the most fortunate of unfortunate circumstances; the 18-year-old battled with Mononucleosis and the subsequent recovery of conditioning throughout his draft year, and tumbled from being the projected 1st or 2nd overall pick that Leafs fans wanted to continue tanking for, to the 17th overall pick that Toronto managed to get despite a 26-point improvement that led to a playoff spot.

While the year hasn’t gone perfectly for Liljegren, with some occasional injury and illness creating some roadblocks for the young Swede, he’s still impressed on many occasions. Liljegren’s 11 points in 26 games with the Marlies rank him 13th among AHL rookie defencemen in points per game, despite being the youngest defenceman in the league by nearly a year and a half (and the third-youngest player period, only ahead of Filip Chytil and Klim Kostin). Liljegren was also excellent for the Swedes in the World Juniors, picking up a silver medal while being placed in speciality, tough-minute roles (while also staying out of the way of players being draft showcased).

Even with all the hiccups, Liljegren is well on his way to having the highest points-per-game from an 18-year-old AHL defenceman ever. The sample is small due to the AHL/CHL transfer agreement, and due to the fact that most dominant young defencemen tend to graduate straight into the NHL, but it’s a good sign.

For that reason, I completely understand why many in Vancouver would want him. He’s a recent first round pick, he’s a brand name, he’s got a lot of upsides, and, well, we all know that blue-chip prospects Sweden have done pretty well with the Canucks over the years. It’s of no fault of them to ask for the moon for their best trade chip, and a player that’s served the team well over the years. In their shoes, Liljegren, or a LIljegren-type player is exactly what I’d ask for, and I don’t feel the price to be unfair.

But… do I see a fit in Toronto? No, I don’t. It’s an “it’s not you, it’s me” scenario, but its there.

The reality here is pretty simple: we can talk all we want about how Toronto needs a steady right-handed defenceman to lead the way for them this year, and potentially next: but if this rebuild is really going to work, the Leafs are going to need two things: a play style that other teams just can’t match, and a constant pipeline of players to fill that in.

Tanev would be a great plug to fill in deficiencies. He’d make Roman Polak a thing of the past, he’d make everyone feel a little easier about maybe moving on from a Ron Hainsey or Nikita Zaitsev type come the offseason, and he’d be a player that Mike Babcock can rely on to calm games down while actually being able to do it. But we’re talking about a 28-year-old with only two and a half years remaining on a sweetheart contract that brings him to 30. Not just that, but a 28-year-old who has suffered a grocery list of injuries in his career, playing a calm, but still physically rough style of game.

What happens after that? You’re either walking away from him in 2020, or you’re committing to giving a player that’s approaching 31 years old his first true payday; after years of playing for relative peanuts, I doubt that Tanev will agree to chump change, or a short-term deal when he gets to UFA for the first time. If Gudbranson can sign today for $4 million, without the threat of UFA, what’s stopping Tanev from getting into at least the 6’s with the open market available to him?

He seems like a player that would be great and useful now (as long as his current injury, which he’s still a month away from recovering from, heals well), but you’ll either walk away from after this deal, or sign to a regrettable extension. Neither of these sound like a convincing reason to trade an 18-year-old blue chip prospect that plays his exact position, who is likely to be a bargain for at least his first two contracts and, while he’s nowhere near as skilled defensively, has the upside to impact the Leafs on a massive scale himself, contributing to the flow of offensive play in a way that we haven’t really seen from a Toronto defenceman in years. You’re essentially trading a chance to double down on a strength long-term for a chance to patch a weakness short term, and I’m not sold that such a decision is necessary.

That’s especially true when you look at the rest of Toronto’s defensive corps. They aren’t super old, but they aren’t particularly young or full of other blue-chip options; by the time Tanev’s deal expires, Connor Carrick will be 26, Travis Dermott will be 24, Jake Gardiner will be 30 and in need of his own contract, Morgan Rielly will be 26, and Nikita Zaitsev will be 29. Even if you move on from Carrick and Gardiner (Hainsey is a given to be gone, and I’m sure they’ll somehow be giving Polak another 1-year deal at that point), that’ll be a group expecting legitimate salaries at every spot in the lineup, which might be hard to swing given what the top forwards of the lineup will be looking for. Toronto has other defencemen coming up, but none who have top pairing upside (Dermott notwithstanding; at this point he’s all but graduated and not to be considered a prospect) That’s where Liljegren has a ton of value; even if he comes up to the NHL this year, he’ll still be on his ELC at the same time that Tanev will be looking for a renewal.

Obviously, if there were another way to work out a deal to get Tanev, I’d be a little more up for it. If it were just Toronto’s 1st this year? Sure. If we’re talking about prospects near the top of their table, but not quite; the Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Jeremy Bracco types? Also interested. Flip a James Van Riemsdyk type in the next few days and give Vancouver whatever return they get? I’m listening as well.

But I don’t think I’d expect the Canucks to settle for that, nor do I really think the should. Again, this isn’t a situation where their fans, media, and presumably their management are wrong for wanting to get a core, semi-foundational piece for a truly unique player in this league. But when it comes down to it, if Liljegren ends up being the make-or-break to make this happen, the player that makes the offer “special”, it’s hard to frame that as a smart decision. It’s a safe bet for the short and slightly medium term, but if the Leafs want to be a modern dynasty instead of a one or two-time contender, they’re likely best off continuing to take the risk on the what they already have.

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