Reporters from Winnipeg were in town Monday ahead of the Jets’ game Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena. As soon as the Penguins’ locker room opened after practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, they made a beeline toward the back of the room.
It looked at first as if they were going to surround Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. But no. At the last second, they veered a few locker stalls to the left. That’s where winger Brandon Tanev sits.
For once, Crosby quietly finished taking off his gear and slipped away while a group of reporters infringed on his space. It’s usually the other way around.
Tanev was of particular interest to the Canadian visitors because until he signed with the Penguins as a free agent in July he had spent his NHL career with Winnipeg. That means he will be facing his former club and teammates for the first time – and again Sunday, when the Penguins visit Winnipeg to complete the teams’ season series within the first few weeks of the season.
Tanev, 27, fielded a question that perhaps illustrates the difference between the role he filled the past few seasons with the Jets and the one he is filling with the Penguins.
Because he knows the Jets players, are there ex-teammates he might be able to agitate?
“There’s a lot of good friends out there,” Tanev said. “(But Tuesday) when the puck drops, there’s no friends on the ice. You’ve got to play hard and just go out there and play hard.”
Tanev really hasn’t asserted himself as a pest so far with the Penguins, who seem to view him as a more complete player than that.
Tanev had 23 goals, 51 points in 195 games with Winnipeg. He had 87 penalty minutes in those games, a fairly modest number. His only point through two games with the Penguins is an assist, but he’s been placed in a key role.
Tanev has settled in on the second line on the right side, opposite left winger Alex Galchenyuk. They were playing with center Evgeni Malkin, but Malkin is now out longer term because a lower body injury.
Jared McCann stepped in for the half a game Malkin has missed and scored twice, so it’s expected that McCann will continue to skate with Tanev and Galchenyuk,
“You just need to build your game and try to build chemistry and try to build confidence with whoever (you’re skating with) out there,” Tanev said of the switch. “Once you have a game plan and understand how to go about it, I think things become easier.”
Regardless of which center Tanev skates beside, the Penguins – who invested in a $21 million, six-year contract with the free agent last summer, a $3.5 million cap hit – clearly see him as a valuable asset.
Coach Mike Sullivan was effusive when asked Monday about Tanev. Here is, believe it or not, an abbreviated version of his answer, hitting the high points:
“He’s been great. He’s everything we expected we would get when we signed him. He brings a ton of speed. He brings a lot of energy. He’s a physical presence. He’s a good penalty killer. He’s done a real good job for us.
“He brings a 200-foot game. He’s pretty sound defensively. He’s got a good defensive conscious.”
Sounds like a lot more than an agitator, doesn’t it?
Tanev, in turn, has enjoyed his time so far with the Penguins.
“They’ve welcomed me with open arms,” Tanev said. “Everyone has been awesome, between the guys, the coaches and everybody in the organization. The city’s been awesome. I’m really excited for the year.”
He’s also looking forward to facing his old mates, though.
“It’s nice to see everybody and get things going right away,” Tanev said. “You spend your whole career in one city and one team in Winnipeg. It’s exciting to get back and play them early and often.”