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Photo Credit: Darrel Dyck/CP

Is Alex Biega…Good?

On February 16, 2015, Alex Biega played in his first NHL game for the Vancouver Canucks as a 26-year-old injury replacement. A longshot to ever make the big leagues, Biega further beat the odds by scoring the game-winning goal in his long-awaited debut. At the time, it seemed like a storybook moment for a player that was destined for a short stay—but, aside from a few short stints in Utica, Biega’s been a part of the Canucks’ roster ever since.

Some see Biega’s presence on the roster over the past four seasons as indicative of Vancouver’s continued lack of depth on the blueline—and there’s certainly something to that argument. However, a closer examination of the Bulldog’s body of work reveals the real reason why Biega has stuck with the team for so long—he’s a legitimate NHL defender, and probably the most underrated individual in the entire organization.

Biega On The Surface 

Alex Biega Games Goals Assists Points +/- PIM TOI
2015/16 51 0 7 7 -11 22 16:46
2016/17 36 0 3 3 -4 18 13:10
2017/18 44 1 8 9 3 32 15:01
2018/19 23 1 6 7 2 16 15:17

To be honest, when I set out to write this article, I expected to say something along the lines of “Alex Biega’s stats might not look so great on the surface, but his advanced stats paint a different picture.” However, Biega’s surface-level stats are actually surprisingly solid.

Biega will never be considered an offensive defenseman, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t generate offense. Last season, he approached a 20-point pace—and in 2018/19 he’s upped to ante to a blistering 25-point pace. It’s not enough to earn him any power play time, but it’s an impressive amount for a player that many would consider nothing more than a replacement-level skater.

His average icetime tells a similar tale. He’s never been a consistent fixture in the lineup, but when he does dress he’s counted on for around 15 minutes per game—not breathtaking totals by any measure, but above-and-beyond what would be expected of a “fill-in” defender.

Digging Into The Bulldog’s Advanced Stats 

Alex Biega Corsi For % Defensive Zone Starts % Shots Through % Point Shares (and Team Rank) Goals Above Replacement (GAR) Wins Above Replacement (WAR)
2015/16 47.01% 43.6% 52.6% 0.9(20th) 0.4 0.1
2016/17 48.78% 47.5% 46.8% 0.7 (21st) -5.5 -1.1
2017/18 50.56% 49.6% 52.7% 2.0 (16th) -2.7 -0.5
2018/19 55.03% 43.2% 51.4% 1.6 (13th) 0.5 0.1

Alex Biega may not be an advanced stat darling, but he’s at the very least someone that the analytics community should have a slight crush on.

His Corsi For Percentage—which measures the amount of shots his team directs at the net when he’s on the ice against those directed at their own—has gone up considerably each season. Corsi isn’t a perfect statistic, but four seasons should be a large enough sample size to conclude that Biega generally helps his team move the puck in the right direction when he’s on the ice.

Like most seventh defenders, Biega does play sheltered minutes—but not to an excessive degree. He does start the majority of his shifts in the offensive zone, but the split is normally fairly close to even—with this season being a notable exception. Biega’s coaches have clearly not felt that he’s unable to start a shift in the d-zone or that they need to keep him away from defensive situations.

One interesting stat that isn’t often talked about is Through Percentage—a measure of how frequently a player’s shot attempts actually reach the net. Biega consistently hits the net with more than half of his shots, and his Through Percentage is usually ranked in the upper tier of the Canucks’ blueline. It’s a valuable—if underappreciated—skill.

A number of different formulas have been introduced to the fancy stats game that seek to measure how much a player contributes to their team’s success. One such stat is Points Share, which is meant to represent how many of a team’s total points each player is responsible for. By that measure, Biega has improved every year—and appears to consistently contribute like a lower-end roster player, and not like a replacement player.

Speaking of replacements, both the Goals Against Replacement and Wins Against Replacement formulas—generated by Evolving-Hockey—measure how much a player brings to their team versus the statline of a generic replacement-level player. In this regard, Biega’s numbers are a little more scattered—but still reflect a defender that, in general, belongs at the NHL level in some capacity.

Graphs from hockeyviz.com

As the above graph of Shots Taken at five-on-five with Biega on the ice demonstrate, the Vancouver Canucks simply direct more pucks at the net when Biega is out there.

As the Shots Allowed graph shows, they also don’t suffer greatly on the defensive side of things when he’s on the ice. Notably, the Canucks do give up a lot more shots from the slot when Biega is defending—and that makes sense, given his stature and the large Western Conference bodies he has to contend with in that area.

In general, Biega’s stats for this season compare favourably to all other right-side defenders on the Canucks (with the notable exception of Troy Stecher).

The Intangibles 

“Intangibles” has practically become a curse word among advanced stats aficionados, but it’s impossible to talk about Alex Biega without at least paying them lip service. He’s called the Bulldog for a reason—Biega is as tenacious and relentless as they come. Few NHLers play with as much apparent and consistent effort as Biega—he’s visibly running at 100% of his personal capacity each and every time he’s on the ice. It’s arguable that Biega has forged himself an NHL career through sheer force of will, and that’s a pretty powerful testament to his personal character.

Biega’s intangible qualities benefit the Vancouver Canucks in a multitude of ways, but we’ll focus on two. Firstly, his effort and energy has to be infectious on some level. It would seem impossible to watch a teammate of Biega’s stature and skill level bust their hump on each and every shift and not have it rub off in some way.

Secondly, Biega acts as strong evidence of the notion that hard work will be rewarded in the Canucks organization. This is a player who was never in the long-term plans of the Vancouver front office, but forced his way onto their radar largely by outworking his competition. His presence on the roster clearly demonstrates that any player in the franchise can make their way to the NHL roster if they put in the work—and Zack MacEwen now appears to be the latest skater to follow Biega’s path.

The Tape 

From the very beginning, Alex Biega had a knack for getting pucks on the net.

 

Biega’s entire career is built on never giving up, and that’s illustrated nicely by this play.

 

Despite his size, Biega can occasionally surprise opponents with his physical edge.

 

Lots of good things from Biega in this clip. Takes a hit in the corner, makes a smart little pass to start the breakout, follows the play up ice, and takes a successful shot on net.

 

Biega’s most recent highlight. Shotblock to breakaway pass to a goal for Antoine Roussel.

 

His Future In Vancouver 

Alex Biega is signed for one more season with a miniscule cap hit of $825,000—yet another aspect of his overall value to the team—and after that he’ll be a 32-year-old unrestricted free agent. With Quinn Hughes—and possibly Olli Juolevi—expected to hit the scene in 2019/20, it’s a safe bet that the Canucks will roll with eight defenders next season—and it’s a safe bet that Biega will be one of them.

Biega currently has Troy Stecher, Chris Tanev, and (maybe) Erik Gudbranson ahead of him on the depth chart. It’s entirely possible that one of Tanev or Gudbranson is moved before the start of next season, but even if they aren’t Biega shouldn’t have too tough a time hanging on to his roster spot. The only real challenge he has from below is Jalen Chatfield, who is at this point still a longshot.

It’s possible, of course, that the Canucks add a defenseman through trade or free agency that pushes Biega out of the lineup, but that might not be the best move. After taking a look at four seasons worth of evidence, it’s become pretty clear that Vancouver would have a tough time finding a defender on the open market that can contribute what Biega does—especially at the same bargain basement price he’s already signed for.

  • MattyT

    Have to admit Bulldog was an outstanding ‘AHL’ free agent signing by Benning that has translated into a fine utility call up for the big club. Love his work rate, enthusiasm and intangibles.

  • Kanuckhotep

    If there is such a thing the Bulldog may be the greatest seventh defenceman in Canucks history. Look at it this way. How long did MDZ and Bartkowski last here in comparison? And I can remember the same thing about Jann Sauve, Lucas Krichek, Steve McCarthy and countless others over the years. At least you know what and what you’re not getting with Alex Biega and at least he hustles. He certainly isn’t Ray Bourque but fills his supplementary role as good as anyone in that position. Could be much worse.

  • myshkin

    bulldog is excellent! he’s affordable, competent and on those nights when the team generally sucks, the bulldog is flying around the rink providing excellent entertainment.

  • Ronning4ever

    Absolutely loved this article. It paints all of the reasons why I think he might get flipped today.

    One thing that you haven’t touched on that CA did in their last Biega – Year in Review: he hits…a lot. While this normally means that he doesn’t have the puck, he’s in the CF% black. So he’s driving play, physical and is current;y scoring at a better P/PG than either Stecher or Hutton. Takes too many penalties, but the intangibles you mention (working his way up) makes me feel he’s a really good player to have in the org at this stage in their cycle.

  • Beer Can Boyd

    Pouliot has played his best hockey of the year since he has been split up with Gudbranson and paired with Bulldog. That says a lot about all 3 players. Re-signing Guddy, despite all of the metrics overwhelmingly proving it was a terrible idea will end up being Bennings defining legacy.

  • Freud

    If Biega does have any value, there is absolutely no reason he should be on this team next year.

    The team does not need 30 year old 7/8 defenceman next season. They need futures. Next season will likely be more of the same. Biega simply gives the team opportunity to move from 30th spot to 25th again next year. Pointless and actually harmful.

    If, after 6 off seasons, Benning does not have any youth coming up to take Biega’s spot, that’s says it all.

    • Jim "Dumpster Fire" Benning

      And that surprises you? Should ellicit a resigned, sad, shoulder shrug of a look. Like the one you would give your teenage son when entering their room to give them their quarterly Jim Benning update ha ha

  • It continues to baffle me that Biega isn’t played more. He’s not a world-destroyer, but he is a solid depth defenseman and deserves to be in the lineup and playing on the 3rd pair most nights over some of the Canucks’ other options.

    • Biega is a very entertaining but wildly inconsistent defender. He’s prone to making bad reads on plays and getting burned. On the other hand, he’s tenacious and never gives up on plays, great work ethic. It’s best that he remains a 7th defender unless he can learn to be more defensively responsible.

  • Defenceman Factory

    Great take. Thanks Stephan.

    Biega must be awesome to have around, huge work ethic, infectious energy, unselfish. I believe he also has an MBA from Harvard. I wonder who is more in awe, Goldobin watching Biega bench press or Virtanen listening to him talk about macroeconomics.

  • Kootenaydude

    Biega is the perfect 7th defenceman. Sits for weeks and makes the most of every given opportunity. Makes way more sense having this guy sitting in the press box then our young AHL guys. You learn how to play defence in the AHL, not the NHL, sitting in the press box.

    • Nuck16

      I couldn’t agree more, provided Biega is our 7th best defensemen, but he’s not, he’s at least our 5th best (when Tanev and Edler are healthy), but he’s been playing better than Tanev was prior to his injury, so maybe 4th best is more accurate, at least for now.

  • Nuck16

    I agree with this article, but I disagree with “Biega will never be considered an offensive defenseman”. It’s hard to put a ceiling on the Bulldog because he shows constant improvement with his game, especially his offensive game. He has a knack for getting his point shots through by changing the angle of his wrister the way Brock likes to do. He’s also wound it up several times recently with impressive end to end rushes.
    He gets no respect because of his pedigree.

  • Gampbler

    Is there a stat that measures taking away opportunities from more highly skilled players? When Biega has the puck on his stick for more than two seconds it is not conducive to generating anything. I love his hustle and bustle, but holy crap just give the puck to Pettersson, Horvat or Boeser already.

  • Whazzit

    Man, this article was prescient. Today’s game against Anaheim felt a bit like all-Biega, all-the-time. Especially in the third, I’m pretty sure I heard Shorty say Biega’s name the most, with “Biega breaks it up” and “Biega clears the zone”. It was impressive.

    And your point about Through Percentage was perfectly encapsulated today. His goal went between 3 players and just somehow got through.