Patience paying off for Bickell, Hawks
Power forward's evolution, versatility are vital to Chicago's Cup chances
CHICAGO -- Parked in front of the net Sunday night like an immovable force, Bryan Bickell collected his sixth goal of the playoffs in a 4-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings, continuing one heck of a story developing this spring for the Chicago Blackhawks.
It's been a long time coming for the 27-year-old winger from Orono, Ontario.
His evolution as a reliable power forward has been important for the Hawks. The losses of Troy Brouwer and Andrew Ladd from their 2010 Stanley Cup championship team hurt the balance of their offensive attack, leaving the Hawks too reliant on skill and not able enough to count on grit.
"He's always had the ability, but to me what's made the difference over the last year or two is his maturation both physically but also in terms of thinking the game," an NHL scout from an Eastern Conference team, who has worked Chicago games during these playoffs, told ESPN.com.
"He's a more mature player, understands what he needs to do to be successful. For power forwards, that takes a while sometimes in this league to figure that out."
Bickell scored a career-high 17 goals in 78 games in 2010-11, his first full NHL season, dropped to nine goals last season, and then had nine goals in just 48 games in this lockout-shortened season. He appears to have figured things out in terms of what it takes to succeed at this level as a power forward.
It's the player Dale Tallon envisioned back in June 2004, when the former Hawks GM drafted Bickell in the second round with the 41st overall pick.
"Obviously his size and his shot, that's what jumped out right away," Tallon, now general manager of the Florida Panthers, said over the weekend. "We felt if he could put it all together he'd be a heck of a player one day. It's taken a bit of time for him to develop, but you have to be patient with players like that. I'm not surprised at all at the way he's playing now."
At 27, Bickell has taken the long and patient route indeed, playing parts of four AHL seasons while honing his game.
And for that, credit also goes to current Hawks GM Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville for not rushing a player who needed that time to develop.
Quenneville says he knew four years ago what they might have on their hands after they called him up and played him on a top line in the 2010 playoffs.
"We played him with Toews and Kaner that year," Quenneville said. "We gave him a little bit more opportunity with the Nashville series, played a little bit. There's ability there. You like his size, his speed. He can shoot and be physical. He's got all the elements that you look for in a power forward.
"Putting it all together has been a process."
For the opening two games of the Western Conference finals, Bickell has been back playing with Toews and Hossa, after mostly playing on the third line in the previous round versus Detroit. Bickell was credited with that goal in Game 2 after being the last Chicago player to touch the puck before Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr knocked it into his own net.
"He's a big body and he knows where to go," Toews said of Bickell, whose six playoff goals are third on the team. "He creates space. I think we're working well right now. We kind of have the physical element with him running around and hitting guys.
"The three of us together, we're getting some good scoring chances, as well."
Bickell says the key to finally figuring it all out was finding consistency in his game.
"I started my career in the minors," Bickell said. "My game needed to be more consistent to be up here. I felt the last three years it's been something I've wanted to concentrate on. I think as of late this year, it's been a huge boost for me. I know I can be more consistent. Just got to keep this rolling here."
It almost feels like he's been the missing ingredient in a forward group that isn't short on much.
"Big body, heavy wrist shot; doesn't mind finishing his checks," Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock told ESPN.com via text message Sunday, his team having just witnessed what Bickell can do in the previous round.
"He's a force for them and it's what that team needs," a rival Western Conference executive told ESPN.com. "He's really come on for them. It's going to be interesting to see if they can re-sign him."
Oh yeah, that.
It just so happens that Bickell is slated to become an unrestricted free agent on July 5. It's believed that the Blackhawks and Bickell's camp spoke in February, but those talks weren't serious in nature. The real stuff will have to wait until after the season is over.
"Bryan's complete focus is on winning playoff games and contributing to the success of the team in whatever way possible. Contractual issues will be dealt with at the appropriate time," Bickell's agent, Todd Diamond, said via email on Sunday.
The Blackhawks have tough decisions to make with the salary cap set to go down from $70.2 million to $64.3 million this offseason. Chicago will also have free-agent business this summer with Viktor Stalberg (unrestricted), Marcus Kruger (restricted), Nick Leddy (restricted), Michal Handzus (unrestricted), Michal Rozsival (unrestricted) and Ray Emery (unrestricted).
Should the Hawks decide to buy out Steve Montador they would shed his $2.75 million cap hit, but that still leaves little wiggle room.
"I think we've got some plans in place, we got an idea where we're going to go with things," Bowman said last week in his pre-series news conference.
"If you look back, really every team, they always have some new faces every year," Bowman said. "You don't have all the information yet. You can't have just one plan. You have a few different things that you're working on. We're all prepared. We understand what we want to do."
The Rangers may not have the cap space to do anything with Clowe given that Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin also need new deals (and raises), although time will tell on that front. The Devils have had preliminary talks with Clarkson's camp, but nothing serious yet, a source said.
Bickell, who stands to earn a sizable raise from his current $600,000 salary, insists that his pending UFA status is not something he's focused on right now with the Hawks two wins away from the Stanley Cup finals.
"I know after this season me and my agent will talk and negotiate things," Bickell said. "For right now, I'm excited to be in this situation I am with the Hawks. It's been fun. We have to keep this rolling here."