When Kris Versteeg went down with a hand injury after blocking a shot in the Winter Classic, there were certainly questions as to how they'd replace him. While they didn't lack players with the skill set to play on the second line, there was the matter of finding the right fit in terms of chemistry, as the duo of Patrick Kane and Brad Richards had discovered overwhelming success in combining with Versteeg on that second line.
Enter Bryan Bickell. Largely a regular season disappointment since signing that large four-year extension that carries a $4 million cap hit, Bickell has finally harvested some consistency in his game having joined the ranks of the second line. Seemingly overnight, Bickell has turned his game around and has been a noticeable presence each and every night since moving up into the top six.
Not that we haven't seen this before. It was that playoff run in 2013, where Bickell spent much of the time with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on the top line, that helped to earn him that fat contract. It isn't any secret that he's capable of playing with high-end talent. And he's continuing to prove just that in each game that he plays next to Richards and Kane.
In three of his last five, Bickell's possession numbers with that second line fall into the black. The two games in which he didn't fall on the positive side of the Corsi chart were the dud of a game against Edmonton back on January 9th, and the most recent contest on Sunday against Minnesota, in which possession and shot numbers made the game seem a lot closer than it was. Regardless, his line is making things happen consistently.
That doesn't just apply to his offensive output, as he's been more noticeable physically as well. While the hockey world tends to overrate that aspect, especially in relation to a team that isn't physical overall like the Hawks, it's an important element because it's such a rarity. When Bickell's using the body effectively, he's much more valuable to the lineup.
From a statistical perspective, in the five games since the Versteeg injury, Bickell has goals in three of five. Of course, it's important to note that in only four of those games has he found himself on the left wing on the second line. Nonetheless, he has four goals in his last five games overall, as well as an assist in Sunday's tilt with Minnesota. The predominant theme here seems to be the fact that with an increased opportunity, largely in terms of his ice time, Bryan Bickell has managed to be more consistent.
The catalyst in all of this is obviously Patrick Kane. It probably shouldn't come as any surprise, but anyone who plays with him has elevated their game and found consistent success in playing with him this season. Brad Richards has built up quite a nice rapport with Kane as the pivot on the second line. We saw Kris Versteeg find his game again on the left side of the no. 2 unit. Patrick Kane makes things happen. But that's a story for another day.
The bottom line is that the absence of Kris Versteeg brought a new opportunity for a player like Bryan Bickell, and he's simply taking advantage of it. It'll be interesting to see if he remains in the same situation once Versteeg returns to the lineup. We've seen Bickell succeed with top tier talent before. Perhaps this is the best situation for him, long-term, in order to harvest as much offense from him as possible? We'll see.
Randy Holt is a staff writer for Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.