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Photo Credit: © Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Oscar Fantenberg has significantly upgraded the Canucks’ depth on defence

No, you won’t hear anybody talking about how they’re #DrunkOnFantenberg. Not yet at least.

The Vancouver Canucks’ newest seventh defenceman may have a while to go before achieving Alex Biega’s folk hero status, but he’s actually been an upgrade on his predecessor over the small sample of games he’s played.

Teams want their extra d-man to be able to slot in and play at the same level of defensive capability, or at least close to it, of the player they are replacing in the lineup. So far, Oscar Fantenberg has done just that.

Over the course of his first nine games with the Canucks, Fantenberg has been deployed in a similar fashion to how Biega was utilized last year. Fantenberg is averaging 15:35 minutes a game whereas Biega’s TOI/GP was at 16:33 last season, which is about what you’d expect from a depth defender who’s stepped into the lineup due to injury.

Biega plays a harder-nosed style than Fantenberg does, but Fantenberg has been more responsible with the puck, and has kept opposing scoring chances to a minimum — something Biega didn’t do very effectively last season.

Here’s a sample of Biega’s underlying numbers from 2018-19:

And now here are Fantenberg’s numbers from his first season with the Canucks*:

*as of December 20th, 2019

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Whether or not Fantenberg’s profile seems more impressive due to the improved quality of the Canucks’ roster this season remains to be seen; but thus far, Fantenberg has been the perfect seventh defenceman for the Canucks.

As CanucksArmy’s very own Brett Lee explained recently, Fantenberg leads all Canucks defencemen in expected goals and shots against per 60 in his last seven games, and his high danger shot suppression has been among the league’s best. His resume is doubly impressive when you consider that he takes up less than $1 million in cap space.

The last thing a seventh d-man wants to do is to be a defensive liability. If you’re giving up a ton of shots and scoring chances against, you can get passed on the depth chart pretty quickly. There are typically about three other defencemen in the AHL gunning for a shot at the NHL, and teams won’t hesitate to give someone else a look if they lose confidence in their current fill-in on the bottom pairing.

It’s for exactly that reason that Biega played every game like it was his last, and why he was so noticeable anytime he slotted into the lineup. When you know you’re going to play regardless of if you have a bad game, it’s easy to take your foot off the gas pedal for a night. Biega could never do that, both due to his own character and the nature of his role. He always had something to prove and a spot to earn.

“For me, it’s coming to the rink every single night and it doesn’t change,” Biega told Daniel Wagner of the Vancouver Courier late last season. “It’s proving that I can be a player and proving to myself that I can be a guy that can even surprise myself and be that guy that can maybe be a five-six.”

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When your seventh d-man is trying to prove he can be more than that every single night, you’re bound to get some good performances out of him. On a team that had Erik Gudbranson and Ben Hutton in it’s top four for parts of last year, maybe that could work.

But with the additions of Tyler Myers, Jordie Benn, and Quinn Hughes, it’s much harder for a seventh d-man to earn a bigger role. Given the stage the team is at in their life cycle, they need a versatile extra defender who can slot in and get the job done on any given night.

It’s part of the reason the Canucks needed to give Biega a fresh start. Biega is on a young team in Detroit that is hanging around the basement of the standings, but he’s a smart addition for any rebuilding team. Who better to instill a culture of hard work into a young team than a guy who leads by example and plays every game as though there’s going to be a one-way ticket to the AHL waiting in his locker the moment he steps off the ice?

For a team that was looking to turn the cusp and become a serious contender to make the playoffs, however, signing Fantenberg made sense.

Thanks to Vancouver’s improved defence corps, veteran blueliner Alex Edler going down with an injury doesn’t equate to the same impact that it has in the past. Fantenberg can slot in and be a decent replacement on any three defence pairings. Thankfully, the Canucks don’t require Fantenberg to play on the top unit like they asked of Biega at times during his tenure in Vancouver.

There’s no question that Edler going out with an injury has been tough on the Canucks. Obviously, the 33-year-old blueliner’s ability to eat up big minutes for his team is unmatched. Still, Fantenberg’s ability to kill penalties and play better than average defence shouldn’t go unnoticed.

It’s still early, but so far, Oscar Fantenberg has been exactly what the Canucks need from a seventh defenceman; and for the value the Canucks are getting out of him, he may turn out to be one of the more underrated signings this regime has made.