For the past four seasons, Alex Biega has been a solid seventh defenceman for the Vancouver Canucks. Even when he was spending weeks in the press box, he never complained and his work ethic never faltered. When he was inserted into the lineup, the Canucks coaching staff knew exactly what they would get: an honest effort, along with the occasional surprising offensive rush that made him surprisingly more impactful than your typical press box fodder.
Last season, Biega set new career highs in points and time on ice per game, and his scoring rate of 1.33 points per hour at 5-on-5 led all Canucks defencemen. Between all the injuries and trades, Biega even played on the top pairing with Alex Edler for stretches and acquitted himself well in the role.
Accordingly, Biega had eyes on becoming more than just a seventh defenceman. It wasn’t a crazy dream: he showed improvement every season and looked like a legitimate third-pairing defenceman. Where he once chased the game, his defensive positioning was a lot better last season and he was more consistent with his zone exits, leading to a significant step forward in his underlying puck possession numbers.
Unfortunately for Biega, the writing was on the wall for him with the Canucks as soon as they signed Tyler Myers. It’s understandable that the Canucks were hesitant to head into the season with Chris Tanev, Troy Stecher, and Alex Biega as their top three right-side defencemen, but it meant that Biega would once again be, at best, a seventh defenceman.
The Canucks also signed Jordie Benn and Oscar Fantenberg, adding two more defencemen to the blue line and, at the end of training camp, the Canucks went with Fantenberg over Biega. It was a bit of a surprise: the Canucks have typically carried eight defencemen on their roster to be prepared for injuries on either the left or right side. Perhaps the versatility of Jordie Benn, who is arguably better on the right side than his natural left side, made it easier to cut Biega.
The team also believes in younger defencemen like Brogan Rafferty and Jalen Chatfield, with Canucks GM Jim Benning confident they have enough depth on defence.
“We have six or seven good, young D-men down in Utica that we want to play,” said Benning to The Province’s Ben Kuzma, “and Alex has been a good player for us with a good attitude and we wanted to do the right thing by him. And we’re at the point where we have good players who we can call up if we have injuries.”
Biega's great attitude and hard work did not go unnoticed by his teammates, who have always been quick to praise the veteran. Even Rafferty, who was competing with Biega in training camp, had nothing but positive things to say.
"I watch him all the time when he plays, he's a really solid defenseman," said Rafferty. "He can skate like hell, he's actually underrated with jumping in the rush and carrying the puck up the ice.
"I could come in and he could see me as a potential threat for him and then treat me like garbage or whatever, but it's been completely opposite of that. He's been super-friendly and showing me the ropes and talking to me, just asking me about my past and school, because he went to college too at Harvard."
When Biega went on waivers, Benning suggested there were teams interested in the 31-year-old defenceman. One of those teams might have been the Detroit Red Wings, who traded for Biega on Sunday despite passing on him when he was on waivers.
Since Biega didn’t figure into the Canucks plans, Benning did him a favour to get him into a situation where he’ll likely play NHL games.
“I drafted Alex when I was with Buffalo,” said Benning, “so I go way back with him and told him that he’s had such a great attitude for us and even when he wasn’t playing, he would work his ass off.”
“I gave him my word that we were moving on from him,” he added, “but if I could find a spot in the league for him, I would try to work that out.”
That spot is in Detroit, where he is likely to get called up to the Red Wings in short order. The Red Wings have a couple injuries on their blue line already, with Jonathan Ericsson and Trevor Daley both out of the lineup for an indeterminate amount of time. Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman has also made it clear that he wants his young prospects developing together in Grand Rapids in the AHL and doesn’t want to call them up for short NHL stints.
Even without the injuries, Biega represents an upgrade on the Red Wings' dreadful blue line. He’s better than fellow right-side defencemen Daley and Madison Bowey and should slot in neatly behind Filip Hronek and Mike Green.
The trade is also a favour to the Red Wings, giving them a legitimate NHL defenceman while simultaneously taking a contract back. The 50-contract limit can make teams hesitant to claim a player off waivers; they frequently want to avoid getting too close to that limit, which would potentially prevent them from signing free agent prospects out of college or the CHL or limit their ability to make trades.
In return for Biega, the Canucks receive David Pope, who is, quite frankly, not a prospect.
Pope was a fourth-round pick of the Red Wings in 2013 after showing some potential in the BCHL. With good size at 6’2” and an excellent shot, it was hoped Pope could develop into a top-six winger in the future.
It took Pope some time to find his stride in the NCAA with the University of Nebraska-Omaha, but he eventually did in his junior and senior seasons. In 2017-18, his final year in college, Pope had 20 goals and 41 points in 35 games, good for 16th in the NCAA in goals and 28th in points. That was enough to get Red Wings fans worried that he wouldn’t sign in Detroit, similar to Jimmy Vesey or Kevin Hayes.
The worry was for nought: Pope signed with the Red Wings and made his professional debut last season. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a disaster.
Pope played 28 games with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the AHL and managed just three points. That was the lowest total for any player that played at least 20 games for the Griffins.
Eventually, Pope couldn’t even stick with the Griffins and got sent down to the ECHL to play for the Toledo Walleye. There, at least, he found his scoring touch, tallying 4 points in 7 regular season games, then 13 points in 20 games in Toledo’s run to the Kelly Cup Finals, where they lost to the Newfoundland Growlers.
Spending some time in the ECHL in your first professional season isn’t the end of the world; plenty of future NHL stars got their start in the ECHL, including Alex Burrows. The issue for Pope is that he’s already 25.
That’s the one piece of information that casts everything else in a different light and one you wouldn’t actually know from the Canucks press release, which claims that Pope is 23. In his senior year of college, where he put up 41 points in 35 games, Pope was already 23. That same year, Adam Gaudette led the NCAA with 30 goals and 60 points in 38 games, but was a 21-year-old Junior, a full two years younger than Pope.
In addition, a big chunk of his scoring came on the power play, where he had 12 goals and 21 points, over half of his total. Without similar opportunities in the AHL, Pope couldn’t produce.
Pope’s age, his limited even-strength scoring, his inability to produce in the AHL — those are all red flags. The issue for Pope seems to be primarily his skating, which reportedly improved over his college career, but not enough to create space and separation at the professional level.
Perhaps Pope can turns things around in his second professional year, particularly with a change in teams from Grand Rapids to the Utica Comets, but he’ll be hard-pressed to find ice time. Along with Biega, the Canucks waived Sven Baertschi and Nikolay Goldobin. They’ll join fellow left-wingers Reid Boucher, Francis Perron, and Jonah Gadjovich, not to mention the players the Comets have signed to AHL deals, like captain Carter Bancks.
It’s hard to see much upside for Pope at his age after such a disappointing rookie season. Unless Pope executes a shocking bounce back season, it seems like the Canucks didn’t get much of anything back for Biega. It appears this trade was primarily about doing Biega a favour and little else.