When looking over the Chicago Blackhawks’ cap situation, most of it makes sense. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane earned their monster paychecks by helping turn the team into a cap-era dynasty. Brent Seabrook making less than $6 million on average is great, and Duncan Keith might have the best contract in the NHL, though it wouldn’t be allowed under the current collective bargaining agreement.
Then there’s Bryan Bickell.
When Blackhawks fans talk about him, there is usually some sort of expletive tacked on between his first and last name. That has something, nay, everything, to do with the fact that his cap hit is $4 million and he’ll be on the books through the end of next year.
It’s a contract that Bickell earned during Chicago’s Stanley Cup run during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and one that he hasn’t been able to live up to since.
In the regular seasons leading up to that campaign, the former second-round pick had established himself as an NHL regular. He appeared in 78 games in 2010-11 and 71 contests a season later, scoring 37 and 24 points respectively.
Bickell was outstanding in Austria while the lockout raged on, and he seemed to carry that momentum to the NHL once the league and NHLPA came to an agreement and decided to just get back to hockey again.
He played all 48 games for the Blackhawks that season, finishing seventh on the team with 23 points. That fell in line with what the norms that Bickell had established the two campaigns prior, but the 6’4″, 223-pound forward would elevate his game in a big way during the playoffs.
As Chicago pushed for another parade, Bickell scored nine goals and added eight assists through 23 playoff games. He finished as the league’s fifth-leading postseason scorer, trailing Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton and Patrick Kane by only three points.
That’s some elite company, and the Blackhawks were forced to make a choice. Bickell was heading for unrestricted free agency and had been outstanding in the playoffs. He had the size and Stanley Cup rings that rival general managers around the NHL would clamor for, so Chicago could either pay one of its playoff heroes money or watch him walk.
Looking back, the call to re-sign Bickell to a bloated salary was a bad one. Yet at the time, to some degree, it made sense.
This is an organization that had been forced to part with high-end pieces following Stanley Cup wins already. Think of Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd, for example. So the Blackhawks decided to keep this one, and it didn’t work out. Not because Bickell stopped producing. It’s just that he wasn’t able to recapture the magic that he had during the 2012-13 playoff run.
He had 28 points last season, which is well within reach of what he had been producing prior to that value-inflating playoff performance. Due to cap restraints, the 30-year-old has spent more time in the AHL than the NHL this year, notching 15 goals and 16 assists in 44 games in Rockford. Bickell has been a good soldier for Chicago, and now he could get the chance to trap lightning in a bottle for the second time.
The Blackhawks have Stanley Cup aspirations, but are losing bodies at the worst possible time. Marian Hossa is expected to return this week, but Andrew Shaw may not be ready in time for game one of the playoffs. Artem Anisimov was also injured in Chicago’s recent 6-2 thrashing of the Arizona Coyotes, leaving yet another question mark for the team up front.
If any one of these players isn’t ready for playoff hockey, Bickell could very well be the guy to get the call. He’s a three-time Stanley Cup champion and has proven capable of thriving on the biggest of stages before. Chicago recalled him on Apr. 6 and he could add an interesting wrinkle up front.
This isn’t to say that Bickell should play in front of anyone who is currently on the roster, but would it be surprising to see him get the nod over someone like Brandon Mashinter or Andrew Desjardins as the games get more important?
Head coach Joel Quenneville has never been shy about juggling his lines or moving players in and out of the lineup to shake things up a bit.
As far as black aces go, Chicago could do much worse than Bickell. Odds are he won’t be able to make the $16 million payday look better in the long term — especially not with Shaw looking for a new contract this summer, and Artemi Panarin’s bonuses about to force a cap overage — but depth goes a long way in the playoffs. This is a player who brings a good deal of sandpaper and size to the lineup, and he’s capable of pitching in on offense as well.
Is he going to win the Conn Smythe Trophy? Probably not, but Chicago would feel a bit better about this deal if Bickell could pitch in a handful of goals during the upcoming playoff run.