Bryan Bickell, Tuukka Rask set to cash in

When it comes to athletes, it seems that they perform at their best during a contract year, putting up career numbers right before they are set to hit the market.

This postseason has been no exception, as two players, one each from Stanley Cup finalists – the Boston Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks – have set themselves up for a nice payday this offseason.

Bryan Bickell of Chicago and Tuukka Rask of Boston have had breakout postseasons, just in time, as both are set to become Free Agents following this season.

With the salary cap dropping from $70.2 million to $64.3 million next season, each player’s respective teams will need to get creative in signing their budding stars.

Here’s where the two stand as of now -

            Bryan Bickell             Age: 27           Pos: Left Wing         

Bickell has emerged as a star for the Blackhawks this postseason. After totaling only 9 goals and 14 assists during the regular season, the 6’4” power forward has already netted 8 goals in 17 playoff games. He has seen his ice time increase by almost two minutes per game with the recent success, while at times playing on Chicago’s top line with stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

Drafted in the 2nd round of the 2004 NHL Draft by Chicago, Bickell finally seems to be rounding into form. And just in time too. In the Blackhawks 4-1 series victory over the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Finals, Bickell tallied at least a point in every game, totaling 3 goals and 4 assists over the five game series.

This season, he carried only a $541, 667 cap hit according to capgeek.com, but is set to make much more this offseason.

Bickell can be compared to another former Blackhawk power forward, Andrew Ladd, who also benefited from a strong contract year. Ladd was part of Chicago’s Cup winning team in 2009-10 and signed for $2.35 million with the Winnipeg Jets after the season. That could also be the number that Bickell signs for following his magical playoff run. Whether that’s with Chicago or not remains to be seen.

         Tuukka Rask             Age: 26           Pos: Goalie

Unlike Bickell, Tuukka Rask was a known commodity around the league. Unfortunately for him, he was stuck behind Tim Thomas in the Boston crease. Rask starred in 2009-10 when Thomas struggled, posting a 22-12-5 record with a .931 save percentage and 1.97 goals against average. But it was Rask who struggled early in 2010-11 and Thomas retook the starting gig, helping to carry the Bruins to the Stanley Cup.

This season, with Thomas taking the year off, the spotlight was directly on Rask. And he delivered.

Rask posted a 19-10-5 record in 36 appearances, allowing a slim two goals per game, which ranked fourth in the league. His postseason, though, has been nothing short of magnificent, and the Finnish net minder will be looking at a big raise from the $3.5 mil he made this season.

After allowing 18 goals in the Bruins seven-game Conference Quarterfinals series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Rask has allowed only 12 in the two series since, going 8-1 against the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins.

The numbers Rask put up against the Penguins were simply unreal. Coming into the series, the Penguins had been averaging over four goals per game in the postseason. In four games against Rask, they scored twice. Of the 136 shots Pittsburgh threw at him, he stopped 134 for a dazzling .985 save percentage, and 0.44 goals against average for the series. His 53-save performance in Game 3, a game they eventually won in double overtime, was remarkable.

So what will he do for an encore?

It’s unrealistic to think Rask will put up similar numbers against Chicago. With the way he has been seeing the puck lately, though, he could stay on par with his postseason stats to this point, which are a .943 save percentage and 1.75 goals against.

Rask could command a contract similar to the one signed by Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price before this season. Price’s contract pays $39 million over 6 years, for a $6.5 mil cap hit.

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Categories: Hockey,Opinion