Chris Tanev’s toughness is undeniable, but should the Flames protect a potential trade asset?

NEWARK, N.J. — An errant high stick to Chris Tanev’s face led him to fall to the ice and cover his head in pain. He immediately took off his helmet and made his way to the tunnel leading to the Calgary Flames’ dressing room for the second time Thursday night against the New Jersey Devils.

Kevin Rooney wanted to know who clipped him and what happened. Connor Zary is just a rookie, but he’s seen Tanev go down enough to be concerned when he sees Tanev go down the tunnel. Jonathan Huberdeau saw the stick go up and knew Tanev had been cut. All three of those players, the rest of their teammates and their coaches, think highly of Tanev, the 34-year-old defenceman, and know how important he is to their lineup. And they’re just as impressed with him when he returns.

“Maybe he just catches his breath and he realizes he’s made out of steel,” Zary said. “I don’t know, but it’s pretty impressive. Every day it surprises me, the things he does and the way he puts his body on the line. That’s what you need to win.”

If you were to bubble-wrap Tanev in the hopes of keeping him from injury, he would inevitably tear through it so he could return to the ice.

“You always are stressed when someone goes down the tunnel, because you don’t know what’s really going on at the time,” Flames coach Ryan Huska said. “But with Chris, as we know in Calgary, he plays through anything and everything. So, you expect him to be back.”

But as speculation mounts about Tanev’s future and his potential trade value, some fans — and maybe Flames management — probably wish they could just keep Tanev wrapped up for safety. At the same time, that’s just not how it works when it comes to tradeable assets. It certainly doesn’t work that way with Tanev.

The Flames have had strong efforts in back-to-back games on their road trip with wins over Boston and New Jersey (5-3 on Thursday). But on a team in which a retool of some sort appears nigh, Tanev has emerged as a tradeable asset on an expiring contract. So whenever Tanev takes a puck to the face, collides with the goalie or falls after taking a high stick to the face, someone, somewhere, will hold their breath over his health.

Those hazardous moments represent the same reasons his teammates appreciate him as much as they do. They play a role in why there is reportedly so much demand for him on the trade market.

“He’s such a warrior,” Huberdeau said. “He’s a guy you look up to. He gives everything he has every game. He’s a great leader for us. He’s the type of guy you want to go through the wall for him.”

“He’s one of the most important players on our team,” Zary said. “You see what he does game in, game out. It’s always the same. It’s always consistent. He does whatever it takes to win a game. I think it’s little things like that.”

Those concerns could easily be applied to Noah Hanifin or Jacob Markstrom, too. But Tanev, more than anyone on the Flames, seems to draw the most attention because of his injury history. This is the same guy who had shoulder surgery after the 2022 playoffs while trying to play through a dislocated shoulder. He did miss 17 games for various injuries during the 2022-23 campaign. But he’s only missed three games this season. When you add those three up, that’s only 20 games missed over four seasons in Calgary. Tanev didn’t miss a game for two straight seasons if you include the 56-game 2021 season and the full 2021-22 season.

Yes, Tanev suffered some significant injuries during his Vancouver days that caused him to miss substantial time. But for him to have only missed 20 regular-season games and four playoff games over the last four years is remarkable for any player who has been labelled injury-prone as he has. It can be an easy trope to fall into, and I know I’ve mentioned it in my writing. But looking closely at the numbers tells a different story.

There is an injury history with Tanev, as with most every NHL player who plays for a substantial amount of time. But if the Flames are playing well and he remains healthy, it is difficult to justify benching him unless they are very close to trading him. You’re not going to see the Flames bench Hanifin if he decides he doesn’t want to stay in Calgary beyond this season. The Flames were talking about trading Elias Lindholm hours before his final game as a Flame against Chicago before the All-Star break. If you’re showcasing what he means to a team and what he could bring to a playoff team, putting him in the lineup is the best way to display that. Not by keeping him in the press box, away from harm.

Everyone who plays the sport risks injury. Tanev and the Flames know that, particularly, as they weigh whether to trade him before the March 8 deadline. But NHLers don’t play to tank for draft picks or rebuilds. As long as the Flames keep playing at the level they’re playing at, the squad will hope to continue chasing a wild-card spot until they can’t possibly earn one — regardless of how plausible or not that it may seem.  You may have seen Andrei Kuzmenko celebrate with his teammates after his first goal and say “go to playoffs” after his Flames debut — and the reaction afterward.

As long as Tanev is available, and as long as a trade seriously isn’t in play that night, Tanev will play.

“You really get the appreciation when you’re watching him for 40 games from up top (in the press box),” Rooney said. “We’re lucky to have him back there.”

(Top photo of Chris Tanev: John Jones / USA Today)

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