By Jay Zawaski-
(CBS) Hockey is a game full of lazy themes and narratives. Tune in to any NHL broadcast and you’ll see. Words like “grit,” “hustle,” “momentum” and “heart” are thrown around like dollar bills at a strip club. On this note, there’s another narrative that’s permeated the Chicago hockey landscape.
“Bryan Bickell is a different guy in the playoffs.”
That’s something Blackhawks fans and hockey fans have been hearing since last summer, when Bickell’s 17 points in 23 playoff games became a big storyline of the team’s 2013 Stanley Cup run. The big winger was an important piece to the Cup puzzle. He scored a number of big goals, including an overtime winner to beat the Wild in Game 1 last year and the game-tying goal in the Cup-clinching Game 6 win in Boston.
Bickell finds himself in a similar place this playoff season. With eight points in eight playoff games, he’s picked up right where he left off last June. But why was he so “awful” in the regular season?
Let’s take a look and debunk this myth once and for all.
Before we dig in to the numbers, there are a couple of notes we need to remember when talking about Bickell’s 2013-14 regular season. He had offseason thumb surgery. He also injured his knee in the Western Conference Finals last season so badly that the Blackhawks feared they’d have to face the Bruins without Bickell in the Stanley Cup Final. When the 2013-14 season began, he wasn’t near 100 percent.
Bickell began the season on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but that only lasted a few games. He then spent the majority of the season skating on a line with Andrew Shaw and any mix of wingers. Then, he suffered a major knee injury and missed a month. When he returned, he went right back to his spot on the third line and continued to struggle putting up points.
When the playoffs began, it took coach Joel Quenneville a game and a half to re-unite the Toews/Kane/Bickell line. Not surprisingly, that’s when Bickell’s game began to turn around. Now, he finds himself thriving on a line with Toews and Marian Hossa.
Bickell just “flipped the switch,” right? Wrong.
Instead, he was finally put in a role in which he was a allowed to do what he does best. Bickell isn’t a facilitator. He’s a finisher.
Think of every fuzzy Bryan Bickell memory you have in your head. It’s either him scoring right out in front of the net (Game 6 in Boston) or snapping a beautiful wrist shot on an odd-man rush (Sunday afternoon). When he’s put in a position to succeed, he succeeds.
Let’s think back to stud power forwards of the past. Todd Bertuzzi in his prime in Vancouver comes to mind. He was the winger on a line with playmaker Brendan Morrison and sniper Markus Naslund. How about Philly’s Wayne Simmonds this season? He had some help from some dude named Vincent Lecavalier.
The point here is that it’s very difficult to find a power forward who creates his own offense. Bickell, when playing with better players, puts up better numbers. That’s how the switch is flipped.
Check out the splits for Bickell this season:
Regular season Playoffs
Games: 59 8
Goals: 11 5
Assists: 4 3
Average time on ice per game: 11:21 15:38
**Quality of teammates: 28.5% 32.3%
The solution here is simple. Bickell’s success isn’t a matter of effort, hustle or anything else. It’s a matter of better teammates, more ice time and more opportunity.
I’m confident that if Bickell was a fixture on the Toews line for the entirety of next regular season, the $4 million he makes annually would seem totally justifiable.
Jay Zawaski covers the Blackhawks for CBSChicago.com and 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @JayZawaski670.
** To figure out how “quality of teammates is determined, check out arcticicehockey.com.**