Season Preview: Bryan Bickell – Looking to add net presence

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By Jon Fromi

The Chicago Blackhawks had several rookies in their lineup throughout the 2010-11 season.  Backup goalie Corey Crawford won most of the raves based on his play down the stretch, but another young man in an Indian head sweater should garner props for his first full season with the Blackhawks.

How about a little respect for forward Bryan Bickell?

The ‘Hawks second-round pick in the 2004 draft, Bickell put in his first full season in Chicago after appearing in 16 games in 2009-10 and cups of coffee in the two previous seasons.

Regarding his surprising scoring output, the 25-year-old wing had a season that went beyond expectations. Bickell’s point per game average in 228 minor league starts was 0.48. His 37 points in 78 games with the Blackhawks amounted to a 0.47 average. Few people would have predicted that his AHL numbers in Norfolk and Rockford would hold true in Chicago.

However, at times it seemed like fans took Bickell to task for what he didn’t or couldn’t do in his rookie season. The song goes like this: Bickell is too soft, and he doesn’t crash the net.

It’s true that he seemed to settle for wrist shots from just inside the blue line a few too many times. It would be great if the 6’4”, 225-pound forward would play to his size more consistently.

Bickell is at his best when he plays a simple, physical brand of hockey. He models his game after Wendell Clark, whose Maple Leafs were Bickell’s favorite team growing up. At times, he strays from that strategy and has been benched on at least one occasion as a result.

He may have some work if he aspires to Clark’s blend of scoring and toughness. That said, let’s look at what Bickell was able to accomplish this past season.

Bickell had 17 goals to go with 20 assists. That ranked him ninth among NHL rookies in goals and 12th in points. He was credited for 178 hits, the second-highest rookie total (also good for third on the ‘Hawks after Troy Brouwer and Brent Seabrook), and was a plus-six in 78 games.

Bickell saw action up and down the lineup. He spent a lot of time on the checking line and proved a good fit with players like Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik in the brief time they played together. He took good care of the puck and was solid defensively.

Bickell lacerated a tendon in his right wrist in Game 2 of the ‘Hawks playoff series with Vancouver. The injury occurred after Bickell got tangled up with Canucks defenseman Sami Salo and garnered some sickened reactions on the ‘Hawks bench as he left the ice.

Bickell returned two games later to become a key factor in Chicago getting back into the series. I think the fact that Bickell played three big games with a wrist that needed surgery to repair says something about his toughness.

Bickell did all of this while being paid the NHL minimum. He has two more seasons on a three-year contract that sees his salary soar to $525,000 and $600,000 in the next two years. If he can approach his production in the final two years of the deal, he’s a huge bargain.

In Bickell, the ‘Hawks have a solid producer for half the salary you’d expect to pay a player that produced his numbers. From an overall standpoint, what’s not to like about the guy?

Judging from post-op statements from the organization, Bickell should be fully recovered from wrist surgery with plenty of time to begin preparations for next season. Not much has been said in terms of his recovery, however.

Over the course of the summer, Bickell has participated in his own charity golf tournament and was filmed in off-ice workouts for a local news story in Peterborough shortly thereafter. No problems were mentioned, but at that point Bickell hadn’t begun skating.

Will he prove to be as durable and cost-effective a player as he was in 2010-11? Can he blend his wrist shot, a nice weapon when he has the time to launch it, with a willingness to get more active in front of the crease?

With Brouwer, another young power forward, in another organization, it’s interesting to look at the lineup and see if Bickell can find the home that Brouwer could not in Chicago. Over the last two seasons, Bickell has had brief auditions with the first line but hasn’t impressed coach Joel Quenneville enough to give him an extended run with the top dogs.

Despite picking up Andrew Brunette, there is still an opening on the top two lines for a physical force on the boards and in front of the net. It would appear that Bickell could step into a top-six role if he could play things Quenneville’s way.

Taking the action closer to the net should be a priority for Bickell in the coming season. He may forfeit a few pretty looking wrist shots from 15 feet out, but the loose pucks he could collect may result in more scoring opportunities.

He has a way to go to catch Wendell Clark, but one thing is for certain: Bickell provided some bang for Chicago’s buck in his rookie campaign. Even if his fails to match his surprising offensive output, this power forward may still prove to be valuable to the ‘Hawks this season.

Jon Fromi

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