Chris Tanev is not one to exaggerate.
And he’s not saying this just because Quinn Hughes is his former blue-line partner and remains a good friend.
As the Calgary Flames prepared for Thursday’s clash against the Vancouver Canucks, Tanev was asked about Hughes’ scorching start to the season and replied matter-of-factly: “Right now, he is probably the best player in the league.”
That’s a hell of a statement.
It’s also hard to argue.
If you checked the league-wide scoring race Thursday morning, a hat-trick of Canucks were sharing the top perch — Hughes and his forward pals J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson all arrived in Calgary with 26 points.
Heading into this Pacific Division date, Hughes was five points up on any other NHL rearguard. He’s been billed as the early frontrunner for the Norris Trophy.
“I think when I left, I said I thought he was going to be the best defenceman in the league at some point,” reminded Tanev, who skated for 10 seasons with the Canucks — and mentored Hughes during his rookie campaign — before signing with the Flames as a free agent in 2020. “He’s playing like that right now, for sure.”
By some measurements, the 24-year-old Hughes already ranks right up there with the best ever.
The ace playmaker was celebrating a milestone Thursday, reaching the 300-game plateau. In league lore, only a pair of point-patrollers — Bobby Orr and Brian Leetch — had notched more assists as they hit that particular mark.
Hughes, who stepped on the ice for his 300th with 235 career helpers, still had a shot to catch both of those legends. Tanev was among those trying to stop him.
“If you watch him play right now, he has the puck the whole game,” Tanev said after Thursday’s morning skate at the Saddledome. “He controls a lot of the game. And then their PP is lights-out right now. Those top guys have a lot of chemistry together. They have been together now for quite some time, and they’re able to shoot things off each other — ‘If this happens, I’m going to do this.’ And then Quinn is so great at improvising so when he has the puck, he’s pretty electric.
“He’s so smart out there. There are guys who are one step ahead of everyone, but I feel like he is two steps ahead of everyone. And just how he skates, how he uses his edges, he is able to create so much space for himself.”
That lofty praise will likely cause a stir in Vancouver, especially with the Canucks looking like a legitimate contender and many fans already daydreaming about the possibility of a Hughes-Tanev reunion.
Tanev, 33, is now in the final year of his current contract. Barring an extension, he’ll presumably be moved prior to the trade deadline.
His former employers are rumoured to be interested. His former sidekick is perhaps pushing for it.
Rick Dhaliwal, a well-connected media personality in Vancouver, reported Wednesday that Hughes has “let (Canucks) management know how much of a Tanev fan he is.”
Tanev, an even-keeled sort with 700-and-some nights of NHL experience, understands trade speculation comes with the territory for any pending free agent on an underperforming team.
He’s doing his darnedest, difficult as it might be, to ignore the rumblings. He stressed that the Flames have shown progress of late, pointing to a late penalty-kill in Tuesday’s triumph in Montreal as a sign of a team that is starting to show more composure at key moments.
“I’m just focused on playing,” Tanev said. “I’m focused on winning here and giving everything I have to this team every shift I’m out there. Yeah, there’s obviously tons of noise out there, but you try to block it out. For me, every time I’m out there, you know I’m going to give my 100% effort.”
As he prepared Thursday to face a few old friends, Tanev was asked about playing a part in Hughes’ rise to superstardom.
“I think he was going to get there regardless,” he protested. “I’m super happy for his success. We are still pretty close, always talking hockey, about different little things.
“I think he’s just blossoming into … Right now, anyways, he’s probably playing the best in the league.”
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Wes Gilbertson and Danny Austin have been covering the Flames for years and know what makes the team tick. Have questions? They have the answers – or the contacts to track them down. Send your questions to [email protected]