Stan Bowman’s time at the helm of the Chicago Blackhawks has been pretty much all that any fan could ask for. The club has won three Stanley Cups over the vice president and general manager's tenure and stands a good chance of taking home a fourth championship. He’s maneuvered through a salary-cap minefield, making sacrifices when necessary, and gotten most things right.
Most things, that is, aside from that ugly Bryan Bickell contract.
Bickell first cleared waivers in October and was sent to the minors. After playing well in the AHL he was recalled for a time but struggled in the majors. In mid-January he was waived again, cleared again, and was then returned to the AHL. He recently told Scott Powers of the Chicago Sun-Times that there was an upside to playing at the lower level:
I just want to play. Everyone’s going to screw up down the road. Here, I get the minutes and get confidence and have fun. Up there, it wasn’t fun. It was hit or miss. You don’t know if you’re in the lineup or you’re going to play five minutes or play 12 minutes. It was more in my control, but it seemed like it wasn’t. It was a short leash where I couldn’t break through.
Bickell is in the third year of a four-season, $16 million contract which was signed in the summer of 2013. He’s managed just 45 regular-season points for the Blackhawks since signing that extension, and now it seems likely that he’ll be the subject of a buyout this summer. How did Chicago, both a smart team and one desperate for every cap dollar it can find, fool itself into agreeing to such a bad contract?
The Blackhawks are a small team. Every year, journalist James Mirtle catalogues the height, weight and age of the league’s 30 NHL rosters on his personal website, and this year Chicago ranked 27th of the NHL’s teams in terms of weight. Bickell is listed at 6’4” and 223 pounds, and conventional wisdom of the time saw him as a vital counterbalance to the 'Hawks small roster.
That was definitively disproven in last year’s playoffs, when Bickell played primarily in a depth role in those games where he drew in at all. Chicago managed to win with just three forwards more than 200 pounds (and none over Marian Hossa’s 207) and with three of its top four defensemen under the 200-pound mark.
A red-hot playoff run
Bickell scored nine goals and 17 points in just 23 games en route to that 2013 Stanley Cup win; more than anything else it was that playoff run on the verge of free agency that won him his shiny new contract.
It was a mirage. During that Cup run, Chicago’s on-ice shot rates actually fell when Bickell was on the ice, but an insane percentage of the team’s shots went in. The club’s shooting percentage at five-on-five when Bickell was out there was a ridiculous 13.9 percent, five percent higher than when Patrick Kane was out there and nearly double the total when Jonathan Toews was on the ice. This was never sustainable but explained why Bickell’s point totals were so high.
Bickell’s personal shooting percentage was also otherworldly. At 18.4 percent it was nearly double his regular-season total.
The lockout season
That lockout year led to some miscalculations by NHL teams, in large part because it was only 48 games long; a player could get on a short run and it would color his results for the whole year.
Bickell played overseas and entered the year in midseason form; he’d score seven points in his first 11 games of the year. He scored just 16 in his next 37 contests, which wasn’t bad production (0.43 points/game) but was basically in line with what he’d managed over the two previous seasons (149 games, 61 points, 0.41 points/game).
It appeared that Bickell had taken a step forward, when really he’d been hot to start the year and had then regressed to his previous level of production. This bolstered the idea that he was enjoying a breakout campaign, an idea which was reinforced in the postseason.
The combination of those three factors was enough to trick the Blackhawks. In an approving piece written shortly after the extension, Steve Silverman of CBS Chicago leaned heavily on that trio of factors to support the deal.
“Bickell’s combination of size, strength and skill gives the Blackhawks a player who can score the tough goals at key moments,” wrote Silverman then. “While he has not always delivered in the regular season—Bickell’s career high is 17 goals—he answered the challenge in the postseason, and he set a very high bar for himself.”
Size and strength were the first two items on that list. Bickell filled a perceived need in that regard. A postseason performance fueled by unsustainable percentages reinforced the idea that he was essential. Finally, a strong run in a lockout-shortened season which he entered with a significant advantage took care of any lingering doubts about his prior record.
Taken together, this would have been a tempting trap for any NHL team, and if the Blackhawks didn’t take the bait someone else would have on July 1. Fortunately for the rest of the league, Chicago did.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.