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
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)|
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).
“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.
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.