The Vancouver Canucks set out to improve their previous group of defencemen before the 2019-20 regular season begins, signing a few of the rare free agent defencemen that were on the market this summer. One of those is left-handed blueliner Oscar Fantenberg.
With only one year of commitment and a cap hit of $800,000, signing Fantenberg has no risk attached to it. Unable to blow up in Benning’s face, acquiring the 27-year-old has a feeling that it cannot possibly go wrong.
Even if he flames out during training camp and isn’t in the lineup to begin the season, his entire contract can be buried with Utica after passing through waivers.
Fantenberg signed with he Los Angeles Kings in 2017, after a long stint in the SHL and a brief appearance in the KHL, where he was able to put up 23 points in 44 games — an amount of offensive production that he never reached in his native Sweden. With that bit of demonstration as not just a defensively-minded player and at the age of 26, it made sense for him to take the next step and head to North America.
He opened the season on the Kings and remained on the roster until early January, where he was sent down to the AHL and finished his regular season there. During his debut season in the NHL, Fantenberg was a pure depth defencemen averaging just over 14 minutes a game through the 27 he appeared in. He showed glimpses of being a two-way defencemen — even had a stint on the powerplay his first season — but ever since his rookie year, it’s been pure defence.
In 122 games since his debut season, Fantenberg has only a total of eight points recorded, keeping his focus on the other side of the game and not getting involved remotely in getting any points.
But that doesn’t mean he’s down deep in the depth chart and logging points with no-name defencemen either. During his time with the Kings and the Flames these past two seasons, Fantenberg has the most minutes (221:20) with below-replacement level Dion Phaneuf, but besides the old man, he has played a significant amount of time with talented blueliners.
Rasmus Andersson, Drew Doughty, and Jake Muzzin have all played over 100 minutes with Fantenberg with good results. During his time with those three, the new Canuck has a well-above-average shot attempt percentage, the lowest being a 52.31 CF% with Muzzin.
Especially with his 187 minutes with Andersson, the two were able to put up substantial production on the Calgary blueline. The sample size might not be the best, but among defensive pairs with over 100 TOI at 5v5, the Fantenberg-Andersson pairing ranked 9th in shot attempt percentage in the entire league with a 59.61 CF%.
In this rough analysis of limited ice-time with talented skaters, Fantenberg appears to excel when paired with top talent. That could be said with most players, since elite talent usually brings teammates up to their level, but to have these results constant so far in his career, he might be a good contrast piece to play with a skilled defencemen.
On the Canucks, the one right-handed option that makes the most sense is Troy Stecher. A similar profile to Andersson, Stecher can carry the puck up the ice while Fantenberg can focus on the defensive side of the game — a balance between the two players.
It might not be the most forward-thinking strategy in the all-offence mentality the way the league might be heading, but the results are there and he limits the opposition’s scoring chances while also letting his partner do the heavy lifting when it comes to creating chances.
Micah Blake McCurdy’s isolated impact metric simply demonstrates Fantenberg’s ability while taking away the impact his teammates had on his results. Contrasting his immense lack of any offence, the defenceman has historically limited his competition to a below-average amount of scoring chances in high-danger areas.
It might not completely balance out, since Fantenberg brings a substantial lack of any offence, but there is clearly some benefits for defence and the Canucks’ moves this offseason demonstrate that.
Signing Jordie Benn to a value contract as well, the Canucks acquired two left-handed defencemen that think defence first and everything else second. Compared to last year’s blue line, this management team has risen the floor of what it means to be in this group of defencemen.
Both are not high-ceiling players that will blow fans away, but at worst, they are defencemen that will keep the puck out of the Canucks’ net better than the other skaters that they had.
It’s not the sexiest improvement and won’t single-handedly lead them into that desired playoff position, but it’s a small move that can add up and raise the expectation for what this defence can look like.
The signing of Fantenberg could always have been better, but there is limited risk with a move like this. Coming in on a one-year contract with a $800,000 cap hit that can be completely buried in Utica if need be, the signing is as low-risk as possible. There is always room for improvement though, the contract spot could have been offered to a player with a higher ceiling than the 27-year-old Fantenberg, but there lies more of a risk and more of a guarantee for this hypothetical player to stay in the AHL.
In this transaction is a clear-cut NHL defenceman and even if he spends most of his time as the seventh blueliner, he provides a level of depth that the Canucks have not had in past seasons. Instead of depending on someone from Utica to make an impact, Fantenberg has enough experience around the league and enough minutes with talented players to stick around and contribute.
Even if his contribution is mainly defence and his overall style of play hurts the offence, in the long run his presence to the Canucks’ defence is an improvement on last year.
That’s all that can be asked of this signing, to raise the expectation and overall production from the Canucks’ defence.
-stats via Corsica and HockeyViz-