"Under the radar."
That's actually a phrase Joel Quenneville used when asked for the umpteenth time this postseason about Bryan Bickell. To clarify, the Blackhawks head coach used it to describe the 6'4 left wing up until now. But now, the 27-year-old is not "under the radar".
Try being on every NHL team's radar as he heads full-steam towards unrestricted free agency after the playoffs are over, and he'll hit the open market less than a month from now (July 5th, a date four days later than most offseasons due to the lockout).
So, if the Blackhawks take care of business vs. the Los Angeles Kings Saturday night at the United Center, or, at worst, find a way to win one of the next three, it's on to the Stanley Cup Final -- where Bickell will be in the spotlight, a.k.a. the farthest place from "under the radar."
They could eventually wind up meeting a Boston team filled with Bickell types: big, rugged, nasty players who've wreaked havoc with everything in their way, starting in the third period of Game 7 from Round 1 vs. Toronto. They flicked away the Rangers and are on the verge of sweeping top East seed Pittsburgh. The crystal ball's becoming clearer: the 2010 champs against the team that succeeded them.
Back to Bickell, though. We sat here three years ago, marveling at the Dustin Byfuglien Stanley Cup breakout, as the hybrid forward-defenseman collected nine goals through the first three rounds, as big a reason as any that the Blackhawks earned a Finals matchup with Philadelphia. He added two more goals in the six games against the Flyers, and his formula was much the same as Bickell's now: the net presence that opponents didn't have an answer for.
After the Cup was clinched and the city celebrated, "Big Buff" was the first piece shipped out in the necessary salary purge that needed to take place in order to get under the Cap the following year. I remember getting on a plane to Las Vegas to cover the awards show recognizing the Stanley Cup champions and Duncan Keith's "lock" as the Norris Trophy winner. Byfuglien was on the team when I was in Chicago. By the time I landed in Sin City, he was an Atlanta Thrasher. He was going into the final year of his contract, and his big playoff required a huge payoff the Blackhawks couldn't meet. He eventually signed a five-year, $26 million deal the following February. They were numbers the Hawks would never have paid him, even if they had the resources.
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See, as big a splash as Byfuglien made during that Cup run, it was an instance in which all the stars were aligned for him. He's always wanted to be a defenseman, but bought in for that Cup run to be the "eclipse" in front of Pekka Rinne, Roberto Luongo, Vladimir Nabokov and Michael Leighton. Even after all that success, he still wanted to be on the blue line. On top of that, many members of the organization throughout his time here tore their hair out over his lack of commitment to remaining physically fit. And when the rest of the roster can find ways to do it, how can you make a different set of rules for someone who can't? And make him among your top five players on the money scale? And while refusing to embrace the role that actually earned him that money? Make no mistake, Byfuglien's big shot is an asset -- especially on the power play, as it is now with the Jets. But he's a guy who's wanted to stay on the back, where his defensive acumen has always come into question, not in front -- where Hawks fans fell in love with him, and he earned all that cash.
Fast forward, now, to the present. After yet another goal Thursday night, Bickell's potted eight goals heading into Game 5 of the Conference Final, one shy of what Byfuglien had through the sweep of San Jose. He made slightly more than half a million dollars this season. His performance at "money time" this spring has likely earned him a deal at least seven to eight times more than his current salary. Heck, there might even be a team so smitten with Bickell they'd offer $5 million annually. On top of that, he's bought in -- and become very effective -- in the role he's needed.
The Blackhawks now are slightly below the current salary cap of about $71 million. Under the new CBA, the cap shrinks to just over $64 million next season. Joining Bickell on the current squad that need new deals are Ray Emery, Viktor Stalberg, Nick Leddy and Marcus Kruger. Of that remaining group, Leddy is probably the top priority, but Bickell has now moved to the forefront. I'm counting Emery as gone, after his superb work in almost splitting time with Corey Crawford in the regular season probably has a team thirsting for help in net and a starting opportunity throwing cash the Blackhawks can't match in a backup role.
Despite being in this cap pinch, I'd imagine general manager Stan Bowman is trying to find a way to keep the Bowmanville, Ontario native around. Okay, so it's actually Orono, Ontario, but I couldn't help the symmetry. The GM has found ways to get creative in rewarding and protecting priorities. First, that new CBA also allows for two contract buyouts over the next two years that don't count against the cap. He can do one now, one later, or both now if he so chooses. He has candidates for that.
He and his staff also have a grasp of whether some veterans in the middle of their salary scale are giving them proper bang for their buck. If not, perhaps it's time to cut ties with a taker who may be interested. Perhaps he goes even bolder and makes a move with a player previously considered "core." Either way, it opens an avenue to re-sign Bickell, get something decent in return, and open a wider path for the likes of a Jeremy Morin, Jimmy Hayes, Brandon Pirri, Ben Smith, Ryan Stanton or Adam Clendening to get a longer opportunity on the big stage to take over for anyone they may need to launch through this process.
On the glass-half-empty side, Bickell hasn't proven himself over an 82-game season. There were confidence issues as recently as 15 months ago. Half full, he's proven three straight years he's answered the bell when the pressure's on most -- in April, and now May and June. He seems to now "get" what it takes, physically and mentally. Still, it doesn't take long for May's hero to become December's whipping boy. Especially after a big bucks contract.
But Bickell's proven something here. In a 2004 NHL draft in which there were tons of first-round misses (and Cam Barker third overall wasn't the only one), the Blackhawks' second second-rounder is finally sitting awfully pretty. Where would this Hawks team be without him, especially as "core" guys like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Brent Seabrook have had their share of struggles in various forms this spring? There can be no question the big man has earned a big payday. Props to him. We potentially have another round to see what else he might deliver under the spotlight. Then, it falls on the bosses to determine just how much Bickell's worth in Chicago, especially in a role they've been looking to fill since Byfuglien departed.