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Blackhawks Tue Feb 04 2014

Blackhawks' Bickell Feeling Pressure

Thumbnail image for GB blackhawks icon.png Any time consistency breeds success in sports, the expectation is to rely on each athlete to deliver every single day from his or her respective fan base. Sometimes an organization will reward an athlete for exceeding their expected value, especially if it's during the playoffs and most especially if it helps deliver a championship.

More times than not, what follows is the athlete returning to regular form the following season, which always falls below the fan base's expectations, and ultimately creates even more pressure and frustration on the athlete. They are viewed as an over-paid mistake and quickly went from hero to goat in the span of a handful of months. Welcome to the world of Blackhawks' winger Bryan Bickell.

During last season's playoff run to the Stanley Cup, Bickell shined bright and helped his team to the ultimate trophy in sports. His nine goals and eight assists over 23 playoff games played came at perfect moments, especially a certain tap-in goal off a Jonathan Toews pass in front of goalie Tuukka Rask.

The goal made Bickell an instant legend in Chicago sports' lore, tying up Game 6 at two goals-a-piece, which ultimately led to Dave Bolland giving the Blackhawks the lead and Cup a mere 17 seconds later. Fans in Chicago celebrated after witnessing the impossible, a situation that never happens for but almost always against a city starved for a championship, and Bickell was largely responsible for the celebration.

But just as quickly as those 17 seconds ticked off the game clock that helped build the legend of Bryan Bickell, so too had the memory of some fans who once praised the 6 foot, 4 inch winger from Bowmanville, Ontario. They now question his heart and reliability on the ice.

After the Blackhawks won its second Cup in four seasons, general manager Stan Bowman set out to re-sign Bickell, not only to keep the 27-year-old as a part of a newly-established core, stemming from the 2010 Cup team, but also to perhaps prevent Bickell from signing with someone else and haunting them to no end. The latter seems a bit out of reach, considering Bickell wasn't necessarily lighting it up prior to his breakout in the 2013 playoffs, but he certainly had confidence on his side and seemed to have found his niche by way of crashing the net on each and every play.

Coming into Bickell's final year on his contract last season, he was making $1.3 million over three seasons -- an average of nearly $542,000 per year. And while Bickell wasn't necessarily known as a complete threat on the ice, his CORSI-for per 60 minutes stats steadily were increasing each year since the 2011-'12 season (rising 26 percent from 11.3 to 15.3).

Not to mention, Bickell is a big guy whose net front presence helps screen the opposing goalie, which produces more chances for his teammates. There was no chance Dave Bolland was going to be re-signed with his aging legs and nearly $3.4 million in salary cap. These factors are what inked Bickell a new four-year, $16 million contract last June 30, which made him very happy and some Blackhawks fans a little leery of the price tag.

Just after the Cup Final, celebration and new contract, Bickell went under the knife to repair a knee injury he suffered during the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Kings. The surgery was successful, however, Bickell would struggle a bit to start the season before having to be shelved for a month in November after re-aggravating the lower-body injury.

Prior to that, Bickell's worth was justified amongst the faithful after scoring four goals in four games near the end of October in which the Blackhawks went 2-1-1. But over the stretch of 22 games, just before being sidelined, Bickell had a total of five goals over the first 22 games.

After his return on December 17, against the Nashville Predators, questions began to surface as to whether or not the weight of such a contract was beginning to settle upon his broad shoulders. His time on the ice began to decrease as production began to slip: Bickell averaged nearly 13 minutes of ice time per game from the opener on October 1, against the Washington Capitals, until the game against the Avalanche on November 19. Since his return on December 17, he's averaged around nine and one-half minutes of time on the ice.

Bickell clearly was feeling the pressure from the fans in the stands and the press in the locker room, as his performance wasn't living up to expectations from a contract so robust. He even was quoted as saying he needed to prove himself into the lineup, including a challenge from head coach Joel Quenneville, stating the big man needed to enhance his game by way of becoming more involved.

So not only was Bickell in his own head, but now he was hearing it from his coach, which surely adds more pressure from such public comments. If Bickell needed any more motivation, he now was getting it from the brass.

Ultimately, Bickell is who we see from time to time: a big and somewhat fast skater who can dig along the boards and crash the net when needed. He never was or was going to be a Patrick Kane, Toews or Marian Hossa; meaning, he wasn't going to dazzle the crowd with slick moves or speed past a defender up the ice.

Bickell is a young player who happened to benefit at the right time, coming off a hot playoff run at the end of a contract. If the big guy happened to be in his mid-thirties at the end of last June, he'd be wearing a Winnipeg Jets jersey by now.

Instead, Bickell's fighting to gain the respect of the fans to show he's worth the price of the contract Bowman and company laid out for him. He might never reveal that worth through the long regular season of the NHL, but if he can find his groove and confidence in the playoffs, like he did last year, it all would be worth it.

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