Chicago Blackhawks center Marcus Kruger of Sweden, left, and left wing Bryan Bickell celebrate after Bickell scored during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Minnesota Wild, Tuesday, March 5, 2013 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Brian Kersey)
When the Chicago Blackhawks hit the ice against the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday evening, they did so with only 11 forwards dressed for the occasion. That’s because head coach Joel Quenneville decided that he needed to send a message to forward Bryan Bickell, and so he removed him from the lineup and replaced him with Mike Kostka.
If you just look at Bickell’s point totals, you would say that Quenneville’s decision to bench the forward was justified. In 17 games since returning from a lower body injury, Bickell has two goals and one assist, and is a minus-7 rating over that stretch. He also only has 21 shots on goal during that time, so he’s really not contributing much offensively when it comes to these metrics.
Perhaps it’s these numbers that Quenneville was looking at when he discussed his decision to bench Bickell with the media after the game on Sunday:
Joel Quenneville on why he benched Bryan Bickell: "We need more. We need a lot more. We're looking for more." #Blackhawks
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) January 27, 2014
If we’re strictly going by the three points in 17 games measurement, then yes, the Blackhawks and Quenneville should expect more from Bickell. The problem, of course, is that Bickell hasn’t exactly been put in a position to succeed by Quenneville, and it’s silly to expect him to produce when the deck is being stacked against him.
For starters, Bickell hasn’t gotten to play much. In fact, he hasn’t played more than 10 minutes in a game since January 11th, when he got 11:56 against the Montreal Canadiens. This game two games after Bickell was benched for the entire third period against the San Jose Sharks on January 5th, only playing 5:20 in that game.
In the month of January, Bickell has averaged just under nine minutes per contest, and even though that amount of time isn’t exactly conducive to getting into a rhythm and being able to contribute offensively, it isn’t the biggest reason that he has struggled lately. An even bigger reason that the Blackhawks forward has been failing is because he’s being dragged down by center Michal Handzus.
Ever since the two were joined up with Kris Versteeg following a January 11th loss to the Montreal Canadiens, Bickell’s issues have come to the forefront even more. The line’s defense as a whole is weak, with Bickell and Handzus consistently slow to join in on the backcheck, and their offensive production hasn’t been much better. Puck movement towards Bickell has been largely ineffective (the goal against the Ducks aside), and Kris Versteeg has been a scoring slump of his own. With Handzus not able to get up and down the ice effectively to get into scoring positions, no one is going to pick up any assists on that line either.
Need more proof that Bickell’s numbers have suffered because of his linemates and his time on ice being slashed, Jen Lute Costella wrote up a great article a few weeks ago about Bickell’s production this season, and came to several intriguing conclusions. Here are the best bits to keep in mind from that post:
“Bickell’s own shooting percentage is actually up a bit this season from his last few regular seasons but when combined with his line mate’s shooting percentages to get his On Ice Sh% we see a decrease.”
“The regular season On Ice Save Percentage for 2013-14 is noticeably lower than the previous seasons, which is a bit curious when paired with Bickell’s possession numbers. His possession statistics indicate fairly consistent performances despite a few off games so this might be more of an indictment of the defense and/or goaltending.”
In parsing those sentences, a couple of conclusions can be reached. First off, Bickell is actually scoring goals on a more regular basis when he shoots the puck this season, but when looked at through the prism of how he has been doing with his linemates (and this has only been exacerbated during his time with Handzus), his overall productivity has been dragged down.
Also, Bickell hasn’t gained the benefit of his ability to maintain possession of the puck thanks to the lackluster play of his teammates. Lately, the Blackhawks have been struggling with defensive lapses and poor back-checking by the forwards, and thus are giving up more goals when Bickell is on the ice despite his strong possession numbers.
To sum up, Bickell has been struggling lately from a scoring perspective, but his struggles are being amplified both by who is he is on the ice with, and also by the shoddy defense that the Blackhawks have been displaying recently. These factors are combining to sap Bickell of his effectiveness, and Quenneville’s theories about just who is to blame for that drop in performance are, simply put, dead wrong.
Quenneville would be better served to do several things. For starters, Handzus needs to be rested more often than he has been, and in order to do that, the Blackhawks need to send Kostka or Sheldon Brookbank through waivers and down to Rockford. In a stretch that will see the Blackhawks play some of their toughest road games of the season, carrying 12 forwards and eight defensemen makes absolutely no sense, and the Hawks would be much better served to carry a guy like Brandon Pirri or Jeremy Morin to help lighten the burden on their bottom six forwards.
Putting Pirri back on the second line with Kane and Brandon Saad, while putting a guy like Andrew Shaw back on the third line with Bickell and Versteeg, could jumpstart both Bickell’s offensive production and also encourage him to get back to what he can do best: hit when he doesn’t have the puck, and score when he does.