For what proved to be a career-defining season for the 31-year-old defender, Alex Biega’s 2018/19 got off to a slow start.
In And Out Of The Lineup
Coming out of training camp pencilled in as the seventh defenseman on a temporarily-healthy blueline, Biega sat in the pressbox for the season’s opening weeks—not suiting up for his first game until October 25 against the Arizona Coyotes.
After dressing for five straight games, Biega found himself scratched for much of November. This sort of thing became a bit of a trend for Biega—he got into four straight at the end of November, sat a couple of weeks, and then played a bunch in the latter half of December. Then, Biega ended up in the pressbox for the entire month of January.
Across the 14 games that Biega played in the 2018 portion of the 2018/19 season, he notched four assists—respectable numbers, but not the sort that would lead fans to petition for his insertion into the lineup.
Then, the calendar changed to February—and everything changed for Biega.
As injuries started to hit the Canucks’ blueline—most significantly in the form of Alex Edler’s brutal face injury—Biega established a regular presence in the lineup. As his playtime gained some semblance of consistency, so too did his production.
After Edler went down during February 4’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Biega was thrown into the lineup the very next night against the Washington Capitals—and this time, he stuck. Biega would ultimately suit up for every single game between that date and the beginning of April—when he briefly hit the pressbox again so the team could take a look at Brogan Rafferty.
During those 27 consecutive games, Biega racked up two goals and 10 assists for a total of 12 points—which by itself would have constituted a career-high for Biega. Included in that stint were two multi-point games. Combined with the four assists he notched in 2018, this gave Biega a final stat line that nearly doubled his previous best season.
In the interest of full transparency, this author must admit a personal bias in regard to Alex Biega’s storyline this season. In late February, CanucksArmy ran an article titled “Is Alex Biega…Good?” that highlighted several of Biega’s encouraging underlying stats. Biega scored in the very next game—which led to Dan Murphy mentioning the article to Biega during an intermission interview—and continued on to post four points in three games.
— Dan Murphy (@sportsnetmurph) February 28, 2019
This represents this author’s closest brush with fame thus far, and made the team at CanucksArmy feel like maybe—just maybe—we had a little something to do with the roll Biega got on during the latter half of the season.
So, we hope we can be forgiven if the glasses are a little rose-tinted when discussing this player. Still, there are plenty of objective reasons to argue for Biega’s effectiveness as a top-six NHL defender, too.
The Numbers Game
Alex Biega has long been noted as a bit of an advanced stats darling, and that was especially true in 2018/19. That’s all the more remarkable given that Biega spent much of the year partnered with whoever held status as the Canucks’ worst defenseman—first Michael Del Zotto, and then Derrick Pouliot.
The Canucks are a significantly more dangerous team with Biega on the ice—and they actually throw shots at the net at a rate higher than the league average when he’s out there. This makes a sharp contrast to the Canucks’ overall shot-rate, which is well below average.
On the defensive side of the puck, Biega makes a less-dramatic impact—but his presence still reduces the overall rate of shots against the Canucks’ goaltenders. This suggests that the popular take on Biega heading into the season—that he was a replacement-level player at best—probably wasn’t giving him enough credit. Biega isn’t just adequate at the NHL level—he’s a difference-maker.
It’s tempting to think that Biega’s results are all the more impressive given his limited deployment, but that’s not strictly true when it comes to the 2018/19 season. As Biega found consistency—and a consistent spot in the lineup—Travis Green began to reward him with more and more ice-time. Biega finished with an average of 17:40 per game—seventh amongst defensemen and 12th overall on the team.
That being said, Biega performed beyond expectations even with his increased workload.
Biega’s rate of points-per-60 minutes was an impressive 1.36—which places him 11th overall on the team and first among defensemen. Put another way, Biega produced at a near-identical rate as Loui Eriksson—a forward who is paid more than six times as much as Biega.
Biega’s PDO—measuring his team’s combined shooting percentage and save percentage while he is on the ice—also ranked 11th overall on the team. Both the quality of his teammates and the quality of his competition sat around the middle of the pack on the Vancouver roster.
Both Biega’s Corsi For % and Fenwick For %—whichever flavour one prefers—were above 50%. His scores in those columns relative to his teammates were even more impressive, again reflecting a player that made a positive difference whenever he touched the ice.
In terms of his zone deployment, Biega was right around the middle of the road—starting 48.7% of his shifts in the defensive zone. In other words, he wasn’t playing sheltered minutes.
In that now-legendary article mentioned earlier, we pointed out one particular stat that Biega always seemed to dominate—Thru %, which measures the amount of a player’s shot attempts that actually make it through to the net. Unfortunately, it appears that we may have jinxed Biega in that regard, as his Thru % plummeted throughout the rest of the season and fell to sixth-worst on the team.
This could be seen as a reflection of Biega playing more than he’s used to and in situations that he’s not used to—and to him just taking more overall shots than usual. Still, it bears mentioning that Biega managed to put up career numbers despite struggling in the one area that he usually excels most in.
From Dobber’s Frozen Tools
Rob Vollman’s “Player Usage Chart” pegs Biega as an “Average Top-Four Puck-Moving Defenseman.” That might not sound like the most complimentary accolade in the world—and it’s still questionable whether that’s truly an accurate label—but it’s a performance standard that few would have ever envisioned Biega approaching.
At the age of 31, Alex Biega’s play in 2018/19 almost certainly represents the pinnacle of his career—but he’s proven that his ceiling was a lot higher than anyone expected it to be.
Biega remains a favourite here at CanucksArmy—but the numbers also back up the bias. In many ways, Biega is the “CanucksArmy” of the Vancouver roster—perpetually underrated and undervalued, yet somehow able to consistently compete above his means with the best of the best.
GM Jim Benning will no doubt be looking to upgrade his blueline in the summer of 2019—he pretty much has to. Still, the Canucks could do a lot worse than pencilling Biega in for one of the six spots on their defence in 2019/20. At this point, there really isn’t much reason to think he’s anything other than a legitimate top-six NHL defenseman.