Bad Luck Bryan: Explaining Bryan Bickell’s “Clutch” Playoffs

*All numbers used are from Extraskater. Assume 5 on 5 unless otherwise stated.

We are well underway in the second round of the playoffs and already people are throwing out “playoff performer” to describe Bryan Bickell’s play. Make no mistake, Bickell is currently having a great playoffs, but I don’t think this is due to some mindset or different style of play. Bickell is not playing any different than he has in the past few months, but several variables outside of Bickell’s control have helped raise his play. Before I get into that, let’s take a step back and remember how we got to this point.

Bryan Bickell’s performance and inclusion as a top player in the Blackhawks lineup has been a subject of debate ever since his seemingly out of nowhere performance in last year’s playoffs. That only escalated further after the Blackhawks signed him to a 4 year/$16 million contract last summer. His play did not equate to his contract for the majority of the year as he battled increased expectations and injuries. But while his point production was down, he was actually one of the better Hawks when it came to offensive production in terms of shots and chances as one of my favorite writers, Jen LC from Second City Hockey, explained in January. I completely agree with Jen’s conclusion that Bickell’s issues were mostly out of his control, and I also think that what we are seeing now isn’t Bickell being a “clutch player” or “playoff performer” but a turn of fortune in Bickell’s game.

Diving into the numbers a bit, Bickell’s year from a possession standpoint was his best in the last three years. His on-ice CF% (shots on net, missed shots, and blocked shots), on-ice CF% relative (individual corsi rating difference from team corsi), and FF% have all raised each of the last three years. Comparing numbers from last season to this season, Bickell’s on -ice CF% raised from 55.3% to 58.0%. His on-ice CF% relative has raised from 1.6% to 3.1%. Finally, his FF% has raised from 55.9% to to 57.2%. Part of the reason for Bickell’s increased numbers were his sheltered zone starts. 69.30% of his controlled zone starts were in the offensive zone, up from 57.70% last season. With that said, his quality of competition is slightly up from last year.

Since it becomes fairly obvious that Bickell’s bad season can’t be attributed to a drop in offensive presence, what is the cause of his poor numbers? For starters, Bickell’s on-ice shooting percentage was a lackluster 6.4%. Comparatively, his on-ice shooting percentages the last two seasons were 8.0% and 8.4%.

Bickel on ice shooting %

You can see from the graph above that Bickell’s On-Ice shooting % (combined shooting % of all players on the ice while Bickell is on-ice) took a step back in the regular season but has quickly rebounded in the playoffs.

Part of this increase in on-ice shooting percentage can be credited to playing with better linemates and finally playing more than 10 minutes per game. For the last several games, Bickell has been playing on the top line with Toews and Hossa. It’s not hard to get a bump in production while playing with two superstars. Bickell’s individual shooting percent has risen to an impressive 14.30%. While this is sure to regress there is no saying when this will happen or how much it will regress. The top line will stay plenty productive even if Bickell shoots closer to his three year average of 10.40%.

Bickell ind sh %

So, it appears we are once again witnessing a fortune of good luck for Bickell. A helpful proxy for luck is PDO, a combination of on-ice shooting percentage and on-ice save percentage. Both are mostly out of Bickell’s control, especially save percentage. PDO usually regresses towards 100, although it is entirely feasible for a player to have an average PDO of 99 or 101. The trick with PDO is to find extreme outliers. Bickell’s playoffs both this year and last as well as the 2013-14 regular season fall into this outlier category.

Bickell PDO

A few interesting things stand out from this graph. Bickell’s unsustainably high PDO from last year’s playoffs was followed up by an unsustainably low PDO from this year’s regular season. Bickell was bound to come down from last year’s high, and he was bound to come up from this season’s low. Fortunately, his PDO for this year’s playoffs isn’t in the “extreme outlier” range although it is above his three year average. Again, a slight decrease in PDO shouldn’t be an issue as Bickell has a “supporting” cast that includes his linemates Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa as well as “second liners” Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp. If all of these players somehow go cold, there is still tertiary scoring supplied by Brandon Saad and company.

Finally, we need to understand what it is we are talking about when we talk about hot and cold streaks. Players don’t product at evenly distributed rates. Every player produces at different rates at different times, but we confuse this noise for hot and cold streaks. Take a look at the graph below showing Bickell’s on-ice CF% on a game by game basis. People tend to follow the “perceived” line expecting Bickell to be the same player every night. When he has a downturn, we say he is cold, but when he play above his average, we say he is hot. Creating a narrative for every natural variation is a great example of mistaking the noise for signal. We don’t realize our mistake until we look at the underlying numbers and use analytics to explain why Bickell had the season he had.

Bickell Actual v Perception

As you can probably tell, I’m don’t in “clutch” or “playoff performers”. I do, however, think that the best players get the most chances so they have the greatest chance of being labeled clutch. As for Bryan Bickell, I think the numbers show a good hockey player who struggled this season, largely due to huge expectations and a rather impressive run of bad luck only to succeed in the playoffs due to a reversal of luck, better linemates, and increased ice time. Last years playoffs as well as this years regular season were both anomalies on opposite sides of the spectrum. The 2012-13 playoffs were a breakout time for Bryan Bickell but they were unsustainable. That was followed by a season full of bad luck and high expectations. There was no way Bickell could sustain the shooting percentage from last year’s playoffs, and we should have known that. It wasn’t the physical style he couldn’t sustain; it was his offensive production. We were bound to see a regression this year, but his regression went well beyond the mean. So, Bickell had a tremendous playoffs followed by a brutal regular season only to finally reach slightly above-average levels so far this playoffs. Bryan Bickell is not a “clutch performer.” He is a good hockey player who is now getting more minutes in big moments with better teammates. It’s just, for the first time this season, the bounces are finally going his way.

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