From this past Saturday night’s issue of The Committed Indian
By Chris Block
Anyone whose read or followed my work over the years would know that I haven’t exactly been a huge fan of Bryan Bickell’s. However, this playoff’s John Druce deserves kudos for being, perhaps, the single-most overriding factor in the Blackhawks being now one game away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in four seasons.
That’s not to suggest Bickell’s current successes should force Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman (provided this kind of thing is ultimately even his decision) into doing anything drastic (not his style anyhow) in attempts to keep Bickell this summer.
Before this postseason, Bickell’s greatest asset to the Blackhawks was his salary cap number, which for three seasons has hovered right at the NHL minimum salary requirement.
While it is stunning to look at the NHL leaderboard today and see Bickell’s eight playoff tallies ranking the 6-4, 235 pound Bowmanville, Ontario native second overall in playoff goals scored (tied with Patrick Sharp). Boston Bruins center David Krejci’s nine goals leads all postseason performers.
With Bickell joining Nathan Horton, David Clarkson and the aging Jarome Iginla as the only real so-called power forwards on the unrestricted free agent market this summer, Bickell’s timing could not be better.
The physical intensity and aggression exhibited by Bickell in the Red Wings series in particular has almost out of character for the 27 year old Blackhawks winger. It really hadn’t ever been seen before and after this post season, and the fat new contract awaiting Bickell less than 30 days from now, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever see this version of Bickell, with any kind of regularity anyhow, ever again.
Bickell’s agents’s asking price goes up with every goal, 45 foot wrist shot that the NBC announcers marvel at, and scuffle Bickell takes part in after a whistle. He’ll get no less than $3.5 million per year, and that’s being ultra-conservative.
No matter how this postseason ends, losing Bickell to free agency (though there’s a very good chance Stan will move Bickell’s rights in the days before free agency opens on July 5th to a team that is hot on signing Bickell. That team could be Toronto. The Hawks currently don’t have a 2nd or 3rd round pick in this summer’s draft (moved for Johnny Oduya last year) and the Blackhawks will be looking to add picks in any round at the draft at the end of this month.) will be seen as the equivalent to the Hawks being forced to move Andrew Ladd out after the 2010 Cup victory.
As a Blackhawk, Ladd was a prototypical third-line left winger, whose grit and versatility, combined with an ability to pitch in offensively, were the perfect foil for Dave Bolland’s third line. While many a Blackhawks fan has hummed and hawed in labeling Ladd as the one who got away in the 2010 Hawks’ cap-shredding, the truth is Ladd did not become a breakout offensive star until he got to the Thrashers. Arm chair GMs saw that loss with the benefit of hindsight. But the unique part of Ladd’s ascension was that his game grew when he was given more responsibility and was looked on to be a major player once he arrived in Atlanta from Chicago.
Bickell is thriving now in a situation that did not necessarily call for his 8 goals, 3 assists and 25% shooting percentage in the first 16 games this postseason. Bickell’s offense, and newfound intangibles, essentially saved the Blackhawks from the brink of what would have been a humiliating playoff elimination by the hands of the Red Wings. Now, Bickell is again a force against the Los Angeles Kings, leading the way as the Blackhawks captain and others continue to struggle and underperform offensively.
Next season, no matter where he winds up, everything we see now will be expected of Bickell – night after night. The pressures on a player, from both the outside and within the player internally, after signing a first-big contract are very real.
Bickell’s most consistently applied asset is that deceptively blistering wrist shot. That’s a nice thing to have, obviously. But as we’ve observed in his tenure with the Hawks he goes to it far too often and when he falls back into that mode he becomes a relatively ineffective perimeter player.
Chicago has Jeremy Morin and Ben Smith who are ready to play in the NHL now. Mark McNeill is the power forward the Hawks hope will be ready in another two years. I’m not convinced Brandon Saad is untouchable or as can’t miss as many seem to believe his is, but he’s a fixture in a top-nine forward role moving forward as well.
It’s the organization depth and wealth of improving prospects that makes players like Bickell, Viktor Stalberg and Michal Handzus easily expendable this summer.
Jimmy Hayes is still a work in progress, but he’s still coming. Phillip Danault will be groomed as Dave Bolland’s replacement. And Brandon Pirri and Drew Leblanc can duke it out for a potential spot as the Hawks second line center.
The Chicago Blackhawks amateur scouting staff, led by Mark Kelley, Ron Anderson and Bruce Franklin – is the most understated strength of the organization. All three were brought in during the Dale Tallon and Bob Pulford led years. It has been their work and drafting that has made Stan Bowman look like a genius. And it’s their work that affords Stan the option of not having to overpay or overextend himself on mid-range players when their contracts come due, again making Stan Bowman a better GM in the process.
The Blackhawks will certainly miss this Bryan Bickell when he’s gone. However, his body of work doesn’t add up to the figures other organizations will be enticing him this summer and the Blackhawks will be wise to thank Bickell for the efforts he gave when they were needed most and move on.
And they will.