By Sean Hartnett
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It was never Tanner Glass’ fault that he became the posterboy for the old debate between intangibles and analytics.
Throughout his three-year run on Broadway, Glass did the best he could to tune out the noise and go about his business with total professionalism.
Glass’ time with the Rangers has come to an end. He is joining the Calgary Flames on a professional tryout agreement (PTO) ahead of training camp. That affords me the opportunity to fully evaluate a fourth-line grinder who won’t be forgotten by this fan base any time soon, regardless of which side of his fence you’re on.
It was surprising to see the Stanley Cup-chasing Rangers ink Glass to a three-year, $1.45 million average-annual value contract on the first day of free agency back in 2014. The Pittsburgh Penguins were more than happy to part ways with Glass and fellow bottom-six forward Joe Vitale, as new general manager Jim Rutherford placed an emphasis on third- and fourth-line forwards that could generate possession and establish offensive zone time.
The advanced statistics available at the time made a compelling argument that Glass was a borderline NHL player at that phase of his career, so the term he got from the Blueshirts was a bit of a head-scratcher.
A reunion with a familiar face in Alain Vigneault and an opportunity to represent an Original Six franchise in the megalopolis that is New York presented Glass a chance to prove his worth to a hockey world that had grown skeptical of enforcers, grinders and face-punchers with limited offensive upside.
Despite being given the thumb’s up by a head coach who fully understood his tangible and intangible qualities, much of the fan base positioned itself against the signing before Glass had even taken a single stride in a Rangers sweater. During informal workouts ahead of the 2014-15 season, I asked Glass how he would win over those who doubted his value.
“My role hasn’t changed in seven years as a pro,” Glass responded. “It’s to be physical and be tough to play against up and down the wall, and to be a good teammate. When I start deviating from my game, (that’s) when I get in trouble. Playing within myself and within my game is what I’m good at. My role isn’t a tough one to figure out. It’s to be good at the little things.”
What became immediately clear was that Glass would empty his tank and put his body on the line whenever he donned the Rangers sweater. But team-first ethics and sandpaper tactics can only take a hockey player of limited skill so far.
“He’s a true professional the way he trained, the way he prepared for every game and he comes ready to play every game,” goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said of Glass. “That’s what I love about his game and how hard he works every night.”
The guy who eats fists and throws his body in front of speeding pucks usually becomes a beloved member of any hockey club. But there was more to Glass’ game. Few fans will give the hard-nosed Saskatchewan native the credit he deserved for being a capable penalty-killer. And by no means was he a ploddingly slow skater like the enforcers of yesteryear.
At his best, Glass proved he could modify his approach. He played with a controlled fire and performing as a serviceable fourth-liner. Other times, his overaggressiveness in playing the body cost the Rangers either structurally or through taking an undisciplined penalty.
At his worst, Glass was a possession black hole and a player Vigneault seemingly gave unlimited leeway, while J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Anthony Duclair, Emerson Etem, and Pavel Buchnevich, among others, were held to a tougher standard. Granted, all of those players were youngsters learning on the fly, but there were times when it was obvious that anyone else could offer a more effective 10 minutes of nightly ice time.
At the time of Glass’ March 5 recall from AHL Hartford this past spring, the Rangers were playing their most lethargic and uninspired hockey of the season. A night earlier, the Montreal Canadiens pushed around the Blueshirts in a 4-1 defeat in front of the Garden faithful. A seething Vigneault ripped his team to shreds in the postgame press conference.
“We had no execution,” Vigneault said at the time. “We couldn’t make a pass tonight. That’s all about individual preparation and going out there and getting yourself ready to execute. We didn’t win a lot of puck battles, and that’s on you to be ready and to compete for pucks. We didn’t win a lot, and that’s why we spent a lot of time in our zone. When we were in our zone, we couldn’t make a 10-foot pass.”
When Glass got his chance to impress at the tail end of last season, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. He never looked like the player who habitually took unnecessary risks. Instead, he provided effective physicality and rarely put forth a wrong foot in the months leading up to the playoffs. Though he only recorded two points in his 11 games in 2016-17, he often was in the right place on both ends of the ice.
Glass teamed with Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast to form an in-your-face fourth line that established zone time and won the majority of 50-50 puck battles against the Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs. The air was sucked out of Bell Centre when Glass backhanded the shocking series-opening goal over Carey Price’s glove hand.
His first career multi-point game in Game 4 of the second round against the Ottawa Senators was a high point. The Sens began taking exception in the final minute and Glass was tackled by Ottawa center Kyle Turris. When Glass got to his feet, he threw his gloves in the air and unleashed a flurry of punches on Turris. The Garden crowd erupted into chants of “Tan-ner, Tan-ner.”
“You look at teams that win the Stanley Cup, they get contributions from all four lines,” Glass said after the win. “Whether it’s offensively, penalty-killing, physical play … it’s got to be some way that you’ve got to contribute.”
Though the Rangers would be eliminated in six games, Glass ended his Rangers career on a high note. Fairly or unfairly, players are often measured by how they perform on the playoff stage and in their final appearances for a franchise.
Glass had his moment in the sun. At that moment, the analytics debate didn’t mean anything. He belonged. Period.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey