Which of these former teammates is the better own for 2013-13?
The Blackhawks’ turn from laughing stock to perennial powerhouse has been something to admire. Obviously they were lucky (and terrible) enough to draft Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, which helped provide them with the core necessary to be a contender year after year but the Blackhawks have also done tremendous job of drafting in the later rounds and in developing those late round picks into competent role-players. Two such players were taken in the same 2004 draft – Bryan Bickell and Troy Brouwer. Neither one is a star on his own but with the right players they can both be extremely productive. Who would you rather own next season?
Bryan Bickell’s miraculous 2013 playoff run is one that is going to pay college tuition for his children, his children’s children and his children’s children’s children. I mean, have you seen his contract? It’s not out and out shocking for today’s day and age but we are talking about a third/fourth liner who was able to swiftly elevate himself to the first line and then landed himself a contract worth nearly 10 times his previous one! That’s outstanding!
This isn’t meant to necessarily disparage Bickell. He most certainly earned that contract with his play. 17 points in 23 games is an impressive performance for anyone not to mention someone as little known as he was prior to that run. But you also can’t help but notice that Bickell had scored just 23 points in 48 games during the regular season and 24 points in 71 games the previous season.
What I’m hinting at here is the possible appearance of the regression monster. Bickell did see more minutes during the Blackhawks playoff run (15:22 per game with 0:56 on the power play) than at any other point in his career (12:48 per game with 0:17 on the power play in 2013), which is a vote of confidence. He also spent an inordinate amount of time with the Blackhawks’ stars during that run, as FrozenPool will show us:
The Blackhawks also married themselves to Bickell when they signed him to that big new contract. It would be a waste of valuable cap space to burn $4 million a year on a third liner who skates just 12 minutes per game. So there is great reason to expect that the big minutes Bickell received in the playoffs will continue.
Of course, unlike his contract, those minutes are not guaranteed. While the Blackhawks wouldn’t want to bury a big money player if Bickell doesn’t play up to his contract they’ll have no choice but to do so. I am always sceptical of players after they receive a big contract extension to begin with and Bickell is a player who relies a great deal on physicality and high effort, if that effort wanes so will his production.
Bickell has earned some rope and that contract will win him more but there is will be competition for minutes in Chicago. Kane, Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are all guaranteed top six minutes and they basically ensure no other Chicago forward can possibly get onto the top power play unit. The second line center position is up for grabs but Bickell sure as hell won’t fill that role. That leaves one left wing spot in the top six open for Bickell, unless Brandon Saad comes and grabs it.
Saad is nowhere near the physical presence that Bickell is but he’s not exactly small either. Saad also has much better pedigree as a scorer. It’s true that Bickell did steal that top-six-role away from Saad in last year’s playoffs but it would be foolish to think Saad won’t have the chance to steal it back. But Bickell’s ascension didn’t actually take any minutes away from Saad in the playoffs so perhaps the Blackhawks have already found a way to keep everyone happy.
Even if the minutes are there all season that still isn’t a guarantee that Bickell will produce. After all, 23 games is an incredibly small sample size and Bickell shot a ludicrous 18.4% through those games. Simply put, he has to regress from those numbers. It’s more likely that Bickell falls back to production more closely resembling his from the regular season where he shot 11.0%, which is just south of his career 12.0% shooting.
There is an argument to be made that with an increase in minutes Bickell should improve on his 23 points in 48 games but I’m not sure I see much improvement that way. Skating more minutes with better linemates will certainly help his overachiever status by getting him more shots, easier shots and cheap assists.
This is particularly true if Bickell is seeing more power play time. The Blackhawks boast a terrible power play (16.7%) though and have for the past two seasons (ranking 24th and 19th in the league respectively). This means that any power play time Bickell does receive will be unlikely to gain him many points. The reality is that he scored just one power play point during his playoff run, which does make the run all the more impressive.
An optimist would say that if the Blackhawks do manage to improve their power play then Bickell would surely benefit but I’m not in that camp. Even if the Blackhawks power play improves it will likely be the result of improved play from their top unit, which still wouldn’t affect Bickell much because as we pointed out earlier those top unit minutes are not available even to someone they just committed so many dollars to.
Brouwer, unlike Bickell, had to go elsewhere to land his millions signing with the Washington Capitals in the summer of 2011. The thinking was that the Capitals had to get bigger and tougher and needed someone with championship experience who could fit in with their star players – Brouwer had in the past skated effectively with Toews and Kane during his time in Chicago so it seemed a natural fit, particularly with the dearth of talent on the right side in Washington.
Brouwer has played effectively in his time with the Capitals expanding his role from 17:11 per game with 2:08 on the power play during his first season to 18:34 per game with 3:23 on the power play in his second. He is now a full time part of the Capitals top six and an integral piece of their league leading power play (26.7%). This led to what was no doubt a breakout season for Brouwer, scoring 33 points in 47 games.
Brouwer has questions to answer about sustaining that production as Bickell. He shot 17.1% last season, which is a fair number above his career average of 14.0%, though not so much above to raise a great deal of alarm. Even if his shooting percentage regresses Brouwer still stands to benefit from increasing his shot rate. Last season Brouwer fired 111 SOG, which damn near matched his career high of 133. Prorated for 82 games Brouwer’s shot rate would have seen him fire 194 SOG, which would be damn near a 50% increase on his career high. So even without the bump in shooting percentage Brouwer would have scored at the highest rate of his career simply by generating more opportunities.
But generating more shots does not preclude Brouwer from regression. Brouwer scored nearly half of his points on the power play last season. If the Capitals’ power play crumbles even a bit, then Brouwer’s production will suffer.
There are certainly reasons to believe that the Capitals power play might just do that. For one, it stunk just a year ago with largely the same personnel. A great deal of credit for the turnaround goes to head coach Adam Oates but power play ace Mike Ribeiro also deserves a great deal of credit. Ribeiro is gone via free agency, which could return the Capitals power play to its previously stagnant state. I’m betting on some regression here but not a ton since there is still a lot of talent there in Washington, particularly if Ovechkin’s renaissance continues and if they can get a healthy season out of dynamo defenseman Mike Green (don’t hold your breath). Also, Martin Erat (acquired at the trade deadline last season) may be able to do a passable impersonation of Ribeiro on the power play.
Ribeiro’s absence will also be felt at even strength. Last season the Capitals were able to split up Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin because of Ribeiro’s presence. With Ribeiro gone and no adequate replacement available it seems likely the two will be re-united. That leaves Brouwer on the second line with Brooks Laich as his likely centerman. That’s a serious step backwards.
There is little chance of Brouwer getting bumped onto the top line with Backstrom and Ovechkin because Ovechkin is now a full time right winger. The move to the right side has been credited as the main reason for his resurgence as a dominant player so Oates would be foolish to mess with that. Perhaps Brouwer could be coaxed into playing the left side on that line but that seems unlikely at this point.
Of course, Brouwer did not really produce much more at even strength than he had in the past so perhaps linemates won’t matter that much for him. What’s more important is that Brouwer continues to see prime power play minutes and there is no reason to believe that that won’t continue for him as he has entrenched himself as the net presence on that top power play unit.
Ultimately, I expect some regression for both of these players. They are complimentary pieces who under the right circumstances can be very productive but I don’t see a leap taking place where they go from mediocre to better. I would treat both as 40-point players coming into this season and be optimistic for more but if I’m picking (and you bet your ass I am) I’m taking Brouwer because he has a longer track record of seeing the minutes that are needed to be a productive player. That gives Brouwer the upper hand.
Previously in Cage Match:
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