"It was frustrating but, the way my game’s been going, I feel like I deserved to sit out," Bryan Bickell told reporters after getting benched. "I need to do more and get myself more into the game."
That was in January 2014, less than seven months after Bickell scored a career-defining goal against the Boston Bruins to help the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup. We never really knew it at the time, but the downfall of the Hawks' big-bodied forward had already begun.
Bickell entered Chicago sports lore in 2013 with the postseason of a lifetime. He scored goal after goal as the Hawks battled their way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, then scored once more to tie things up in the third period at TD Garden. Dave Bolland's goal 17 seconds later would cement one of the greatest moments in Blackhawks history. In a matter of weeks, Bickell had become one of the hottest players in all of hockey and a local superstar.
The Blackhawks rewarded him handsomely with a four-year, $16 million deal that summer, thinking Bickell's size and shooting ability would make him a mainstay for seasons to come. If the 2013 postseason was any indication, the winger would be ready to take his two-way game to the next level and become part of Chicago's vaunted core. His salary was a reflection of that expectation.
Now Bickell's game has gone down the drain, his contract is one of the NHL's biggest anchors and the Hawks took the big step of reassigning him to Rockford. Less than three years after seemingly solidifying himself as part of Chicago hockey's present and future, he's playing out in The Rock alongside developing prospects and journeymen. Except unlike the Nic Cage flick, chances of escaping here seem remote.
Bickell's career has fallen into an unimaginable tail spin. Now he's hitting rock bottom with over a year still remaining on his contract.
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The fall for Bickell begins and ends with that contract. Right from the start, the 6'4 winger struggled to live up to the big money. Chicago made the mistake of paying a decent player too much, and in the end, both sides have had to pay the price.
Bickell has turned into an easy targets for fans to pile on. He's the overpaid player on a team that's lost beloved star after beloved star to the salary cap. He's the poster child for the Hawks' fringe interest in maintaining some semblance of size while they continue to double down on speed and hockey I.Q. For a lot of fans, Bickell stands out as one of the few things to get frustrated about on a team that's had past success and is positioned to sustain it.
It just sucks, especially for Bickell.
There's no denying he was given a contract that would be incredibly hard to live up to. Even if the price for a good winger is increasing, Bickell's track record prior to the 2013 postseason never would've yielded $16 million guaranteed. He was signed off a hot streak, straight up. Chicago was gambling that 23 games in the playoffs were a greater signal for the future than the middling 200-plus regular season games that had preceded them. Bickell, as a normal person being offered a massive amount of money, opted to accept it.
And while that meant he would also accept the pressure that comes with such a big salary, things aren't that simple with Bickell. If he had simply continued to be the player he was before signing the contract, he would've been overpaid, but not an outright albatross. Instead, his performance has fallen off so sharply that the Hawks can't even justify keeping him on the NHL roster anymore. He was a $4 million press box player before being shuttled off to Rockford.
Other teams don't even want Bickell now. The Hawks' efforts to trade him have gone fruitless. A trip through waivers unsurprisingly ended with him going unclaimed. Overpaid players can often be traded. The fact that Bickell seems so difficult to move is a reflection of not just his bloated contract, but skepticism that he's even a legitimate NHL contributor at this point.
Bickell is still just 29 years old and nobody around him has ever questioned his willingness to work hard as a player. His teammates have always said the right things and coach Joel Quenneville has seemingly tried everything to get him going.
But ever since Bickell started missing games with vertigo during the 2015 playoffs, he's never looked the same. Now we're wondering if this is the last we'll ever see of the burly big man in a Hawks uniform.
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I'm not sure it can be understated how devastating the vertigo has been to Bickell's career. Nobody around the team seems willing to acknowledge how much it has affected Bickell's game, but starting in the spring of 2015, Bickell's impact on the ice took a noticeable dip. His ability to make plays in tight spaces and finish opportunities completely evaporated. We may never know just how much the vertigo impacted Bickell on and off the ice, but after missing games with vertigo in the Stanley Cup Final against Tampa Bay, he's returned and looked totally lost. Maybe it's not the vertigo that's still affecting him, but it feels like a significant development in an already challenging time in his career.
Chicago tried to be patient with Bicks, giving up chances with the NHL team even after he cleared waivers earlier this year. It's just not working, though. On Friday, he'll likely suit up for the IceHogs as the team visits Grand Rapids, $4.5 million salary and all. This is where Bickell's career has gone, and now the future is cloudy.
It's possible Bickell has played his last game with the Hawks. The team could leave him in Rockford all year then buy him out in the summer. Maybe they'll convince someone to take his deal if they retain some money. The hope for a Bickell rejuvenation seems to be dying out, though, and it's a sad way for things to end. Bickell has contributed to some of the best and worst moments in recent Hawks history. It's a shame that it's going to wind down like this.
And finally, from better times: