Chicago Blackhawks’ What If … Bryan Bickell Hadn’t Gotten Paid
By Colin Likas
There are plenty of “what if” questions you can ask about the Chicago Blackhawks in this era, and we’re going to touch on one involving a recently-retired former team member
As sports fans, some of the most time-consuming thoughts we can have involve “what if” queries. You always want to wonder what would have happened to your team — the Chicago Blackhawks, in this instance — if they had or hadn’t done something, or if something had or hadn’t happened involving them.
I hope to make this a little series that can go on through the rest of the offseason, as we have little to talk about until training camp in September. The series being a look at some “what if” questions involving the Blackhawks in the Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane era.
Today, we’re going to look at a topic that quickly went from a feel-good moment to a frustration, and then to something really sad — Bryan Bickell getting paid after his 2013 postseason breakout.
It was a topic of much consternation almost immediately, as Bickell could not live up to the four-year, $16 million deal general manager Stan Bowman bestowed upon him. Adding to the problem by the back half of the contract was Bickell’s declining health, the result of a not-yet-diagnosed case of multiple sclerosis.
Bickell was posting a $4 million salary cap hit to play in the AHL by 2015-16. And so, he was packaged with Teuvo Teravainen in a deal with Carolina during the 2016 offseason, getting the albatross contract off the books.
Bickell was diagnosed with MS a short time later and retired recently as a Hurricane. But what might have happened …
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… if Bickell hadn’t gotten paid by Blackhawks?
It’s worth noting from the outset that there’s no way we can change anything regarding Bickell’s health. That’s an extraordinarily terrible occurrence for anyone, and this post isn’t about “What if Bickell hadn’t become ill.” We all wish he hadn’t, but this is just about the contract he received.
Now, when I say that Bickell got paid, I mean he received a large contract following his standout performance during the Blackhawks’ run to the Stanley Cup in 2013. I think there are two alternatives to consider in this “what if” situation:
— Bickell receiving a lower-cost contract instead
— The Blackhawks letting Bickell walk/trading his rights
Yes, Bickell would still technically “get paid” if the Blackhawks gave him a lower-cost contract in the 2013 offseason. But I wouldn’t consider it nearly the same. There would be a major difference between having a guy carry a $2 million cap hit versus a $4 million cap hit, especially with how tight to the cap ceiling Chicago always is.
So let’s start first with the idea of giving Bickell a lower-cost contract.
Altering the contract
We’ll never know exactly how Bickell/his agent and Bowman wound up at a $16 million contract over four seasons, complete with a modified no-trade clause. But let’s say the Blackhawks work him down to half that over the same timeframe, or a $2-$3 million hit over two or three years.
We can’t really change his inability to live up to the contract he was given, but perhaps a smaller contract would have placed less pressure on Bickell. He wasn’t struggling at the start of this new deal because of illness — he specifically highlights here when things started going wrong in that regard. He was under an immense amount of pressure going from a $541,667 cap hit and a supporting role with the Blackhawks to a $4 million cap hit and a top-six feature spot.
Could he have produced more than 15 points in 2013-14 and 28 points in 2014-15? Maybe. Maybe Bickell wouldn’t have pressed as hard as it felt like he was prior to his health becoming a major issue.
And, with a shorter-term deal, perhaps the two sides could have split more easily after a few seasons, not necessitating the addition of Teravainen in a deal to get Bickell’s contract off the books. Or, they could have re-upped Bickell on another short-term, lower-cost deal.
Da Windy City
The Blackhawks could have had a more reasonably priced Bickell keying the bottom six, and occasionally slotting in on the top six. He may have seen two better regular seasons without the stress of a major pay raise and sudden expanded role on the team.
Additionally, the Blackhawks could have had a little extra money to spend — whether it be on bolstering the defense before the 2015-16 season, or more strongly considering paying someone like Brandon Saad. Totally depends on the terms of this restructured deal, but a lower-cost one, even by a couple million bucks, could have really helped somewhere.
Letting Bickell walk/trading his rights
So this is the alternative wherein the Blackhawks are losing a player who had an incredible 2013 postseason, but also not tying up $16 million on someone who had never scored more than 37 points in a regular season.
I don’t think letting Bickell walk was ever an option. Even if the Blackhawks were uncertain Bickell could effectively follow up his 2013 postseason success, it would be crazy to let such a hot commodity go to another team — possibly a rival — for nothing.
But trading his rights certainly could have been in the cards. However, unlike with Saad in 2015 and Andrew Shaw in 2016, Bickell was due to be an unrestricted free agent in 2013. So the Blackhawks had until the opening of free agency July 1 to trade Bickell’s rights.
This doesn’t happen terribly often, as noted in this Sportsnet article from 2016. But with how sought after Bickell may have been at this point — there are a number of NHL teams that would have taken a mid-20s, gritty, net-front presence like Bickell after his 2013 postseason display — I think the Blackhawks could have pulled it off.
What would they have gotten in return? Hard to say for sure, but some sort of draft pick or maybe combination of picks seems reasonable. Whatever player they could’ve gotten in return for Bickell’s rights in a case like this would likely have been AHL talent at best.
So if the Blackhawks do this, they potentially bolster their draft portfolio with a pick or two while also not spending $16 million on a player who hadn’t yet proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a top-six forward.
Of course, the team pulled off another Cup win in 2015 and probably would have won the 2014 Cup had Game 7 of the Western Conference finals gone the other way, but what about the future beyond that?
You’re not having nearly as much trouble picturing Saad re-signing in 2015. Artemi Panarin can still come aboard the same year, and who knows how his contract negotiations go moving forward. The defense certainly isn’t relying on David Rundblad and well-past-their-prime versions of Rob Scuderi and Christian Ehrhoff. Could Nick Leddy have stuck around? There are a lot of options on the table.
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So while what happened with Bickell’s health and career was and is truly terrible, it’s extremely interesting to wonder what could have happened in Chicago had the Blackhawks’ talks with the forward gone a different direction in 2013.