The Predators want to get bigger for the 2013-14 season.
They have a number of young players who fit that bill and who played well after being called up from the minors (Milwaukee — American Hockey League) late in the season, notably Taylor Beck but also Austin Watson and Filip Forsberg.
This trio may yet turn out to be very good NHL players, but there is a difference between waiting for a talent to develop and acquiring a known quantity. When it comes to known quantities, there is a player whose team is still very much alive in the Stanley Cup playoffs, who could fit the Predators’ needs to a tee. By the way, he also is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in a couple of weeks.
He’s 6-foot-4, 233-pound Blackhawks left wing Bryan Bickell, whose six goals are only two off the lead for the entire playoffs. Bickell could help strengthen the Predators’ bid to return to the postseason, while also diminishing one of their divisional rivals.
In addition to his size, Bickell, 29, has been so effective in a relatively small amount of ice time. With Chicago being so top-heavy in skilled forwards such as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, that doesn’t leave much ice time for players like Bickell — even though he has played on the ‘Hawks’ top line in the Western Conference finals with Toews and Hossa.
Bickell scored what proved to be the game-winning goal on the power play in Chicago’s 4-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings Sunday, boosting the Blackhawks’ series lead to 2-0. In Game 1, he earned an assist on the game-winning goal, picking up a loose puck and doing some good work on the boards to keep the play alive that resulted in a goal.
In the playoffs, Bickell has averaged just 13:25 per game, ranking him 14th on the team. Even on the power play, his ice time ranks 12th, with an average of 41 seconds.
Bickell’s power-play role is somewhat like that of Patric Hornqvist’s for the Predators: He stands in front of the net to set screens and, often with his size, blocks out a goaltender’s vision. But he also has a good shot and is good along the boards — the kind of skills the Predators prize.
Bickell only earns $600,000 this season and, based on his playoff performance, is due for a big raise. But the Blackhawks will find themselves strapped under the salary cap, which is set to fall by about $6 million next season. According to the website CapGeek.com, they have only $2.094 million in available space — the third-highest total committed to salaries.
With limited funds, the Blackhawks still have a few players to sign. One is forward Marcus Kruger, a restricted free agent, who has been part of the playoffs’ top penalty-killing tandem. The Blackhawks have allowed only two goals in 47 chances in the postseason, a penalty-killing percentage of 95.7.
Forward Viktor Stalberg is set to be an unrestricted free agent, but based on what appears like a rocky relationship with coach Joel Quenneville, he might not be back. Defenseman Nick Leddy, an up-and-comer, will also be a restricted free agent. Just keeping one of those players could eat up all of Chicago’s remaining cap room — barring a drastic move or two.
(In the past, they have been unafraid to make such moves, as in ’10 when they won the Cup then made a series of deals with Atlanta, shedding Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel and Andrew Ladd.)
When it comes to their free agents, the Blackhawks cannot afford to give out large, multi-year deals to supplementary players with a number of key contracts coming up soon: David Bolland and Niklas Hjalmarsson in ’14 and Kane and Toews in ’15 (when they face a situation similar to what Nashville did last summer when Shea Weber and Ryan Suter both were free agents).
Meanwhile, Nashville will have $17.65 million in cap space when free agency starts in a few weeks. Bickell also fits into their mold in another way: He’s young with seemingly his best years ahead of him. The Preds tend not to go after older free agents (their two-year run with Paul Kariya the exception that proves the rule).
It’s hard to say what Bickell will fetch on the open market. In one sense, he’s never scored more than 17 goals (in 2010-11) and has shown that he can regress, as he totaled only nine in 71 games in 2011-12. But opportunity can have a lot to do with production and in a place like Nashville, he’d get plenty more ice time and power play time than he would in Chicago.
In today’s NHL, fewer free agents hit the market each summer, with many top players being locked up on long-term deals. Much of this year’s free-agent crop is either ancient or has an injury history. A high-end scoring winger, like Boston’s Nathan Horton, is sure to cash in a major way.
So, while Bickell could end up doing very well for himself, he could still fall into more of a mid-range.
Quenneville sized him up this way to the media after Sunday’s game, citing an NHL.com story:
“There’s ability there. You like his size, his speed. He can shoot and be physical. He’s got all the elements that you look for in a power forward. Putting it all together has been a process.”
If we’re seeing the finished product, it could be a process that the Predators might want to get in on.