Bickell a return on investment for Blackhawks

Chicago Blackhawks' Bryan Bickell (29), center, celebrates a goal with Marian Hossa. Nam Y. Huh/AP

If it were the other way around, the Chicago Blackhawks front office folks might have spent more time debating the merits of re-signing Bryan Bickell last summer.

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If Bickell had been a killer in the regular season and a dud in the playoffs, like Pavel Datsyuk was at the beginning of his NHL career, there likely would have been a voice or two wondering if he was a winner, if he had another level. (Honestly, with three goals in his first 42 playoff games, we can recall the debate over whether or not Datsyuk had any game. Sounds crazy now, eh?).

But Bickell was a 6-foot-4, 233-pound winger coming off of a nine-goal, 17-point playoff last summer, and as inconsistent a regular season player as he has been, the conversation about letting him go to unrestricted free agency simply had no legs inside the Blackhawks board room.

“We have a lot of skill and scoring,” Chicago’s assistant GM Norm Maciver said over the phone from Chicago when we asked him about the decision process. “But what we didn’t have was anything that resembled what he brings: Size, physicality, an ability to score and play with great players… He was literally the only player in our organization we had like that.

“It made it pretty easy to re-sign him.”

Less obvious was the knowledge that the Bickell contract would make re-signing Viktor Stalberg and Michael Frolik impossible, and with one year to free agency, they would eventually lose David Bolland as well. It was a heavy investment in a 26-year-old who wasn’t a true pro yet, but one that simply had to be made. Fast forward 10 months later, and Bickell has flexed his game in the first two installments of the Western Conference second round series against the Minnesota Wild. He had two goals in Game 1 and a goal and two assists in Game 2, and he is the perfect complement to the left side of Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Bickell is that big horse that can crowd the net, yet skate and handle a puck well enough to work off the rush with two of the game’s elite talents.

If you don’t see him often, his foot speed and quickness are the first elements of Bickell’s game that you’ll notice. There aren’t a lot of guys his size who get there the way he can. The next thing you’ll notice is his wrist shot — one of the true cannons in the National Hockey League today.

Late in the third period on Sunday, Bickell roared down the right wing, took a pass from Toews and blistered a wrist shot off the cross bar behind Ilya Bryzgalov, Bickell’s second crossbar of the day. On his very next shift he came down the left side, and when Marian Hossa gave him the puck he wasn’t getting it back. Bickell fired over a diving Wild defenceman, hitting the top corner with the accuracy and confidence of a 50-goal scorer.

He looked like a guy who knew he could hit that spot and score from a distance. And he did, simple as that.
“The big thing with Bick in the minors was consistency,” said Maciver. “Not much different than what we’ve seen in the regular season (in Chicago). All of the sudden in the playoffs, the consistency has just been there.”

Bickell opened the season with a brand new four-year, $16-million deal, and head coach Joel Quenneville furthered the reward process with an Opening Night line featuring Bickell flanking Toews and Patrick Kane. But those close to the Hawks speak of a power forward who subconsciously tried to emulate the flash and dash of Toews and Kane, rather than maintain the physical, net-crashing style that slotted him on that line in the first place.

It was the classic example of Don Cherry’s “crusher who becomes a rusher,” and before Bickell knew it, Quenneville had ushered him on to the third and fourth lines. He floundered around, producing just 11-4-15 in 59 games – nowhere close to $4 million worth of production. But if a one-game suspension in the playoffs is deemed to be equal to a two-game regular season ban, Bickell’s five playoff goals thus far are going some distance to rectifying any deficit in the value he had provided between October and April.

Right now all the Wild can do is hope to match the skill of Toews and Kane and Hossa and Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith; Minnesota simply does not have a Top 6 player who is 6-4, 233 pounds and can laser a puck from 30-feet past an unscreened netminder.

Not many teams can say they have that guy, and Chicago knew he’d be snapped up as a UFA. Bickell had nine goals and 17 points in Chicago’s 23-game Cup run of a year ago. He’s got 5-3-8 in eight games this spring.
He’s a gamer, and a big one at that. There is no way any team would let a guy like this get away.

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