2013 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six

How much weight do you place on a good playoff performance?

If you look back through the Chicago Blackhawks players between 2009 and 2012, Bryan Bickell is 13th out of 28 players (min. 10 GP) in points per game with 0.47. Bickell had 17 points in 23 games in the most recent postseason and is probably going to parlay that into a significant UFA contract.

It won’t be a smart deal, but it’s not like Bickell is a slouch of a player. Over a 5-year period, he’s sixth on the Blackhawks in even strength points per 60, and is 115th in the league, right around Artem Anisimov, Martin Erat and Pierre Parenteau.

There are some teams that won’t have too much hesitation signing Bickell to a few years with a fat paycheque as one of the more productive depth players in the league.

But even a productive depth player is still a depth player, and it’s probably pretty tempting to give Bickell a shot on your Top Six because everybody saw what he was able to do during the NHL postseason. He PDO’d a 1.056 during the playoffs while his career PDO is 1.014, but I don’t think that you need numbers to know that Bryan Bickell was probably punching above his weight class by being productive while occasionally on Chicago’s top line this spring. If he hadn’t sprained his knee against the LA Kings, he may have done even better.

So, it’s easy to get excited about him. He’s big, too.

And yes, playoff production is probably the most important thing if you’re looking to win a Stanley Cup. There is nothing more important than scoring goals in the playoffs. The issue is that how do you predict which players will be tops in any playoff campaign?

Bickell, being 13th out of 28 players in points per game on the Hawks headed into the 2013 playoffs, nobody had really expected him to do a whole lot. In a playoff auction draft I was in, where every player was given 100 “coins” to spend on 10 players plus one goaltender, Bickell went for only 3, the same as Brendan Gallagher and Milan Michalek. It was hard to forecast him doing well in the playoffs because he had never really scored a lot in the regular season or the playoffs.

Ultimately, the Hawks’ best performer this postseason was Patrick Kane, who has been the highest-scoring Blackhawk in both the regular season and the playoffs since the team started competing in the spring again. He is simply the best offensive player on the club. He didn’t win the Conn Smythe Trophy on account of being “clutch”, he won it on account of being very, very good.

Being “good” has to outweigh being “clutch” when you’re looking at players. While clutch performance is very important in determining winners and losers in the playoffs, it’s tough to forecast future clutch performance by looking at past clutch performance because there isn’t a lot of sample size and really, lots of noise in that sample.

On the other end of the spectrum is goaltenders. I don’t listen to a lot of radio, but @Hope_Smoke does, and quoted an interesting thing from Doug MacLean, a former general manager:

Seeing as new goaltenders seem to establish themselves every year, you should be very, very sure that your goalie is worth $5-million before paying him that. Rask has been a starter for two seasons (he played barely over 50% of the regular season games in 2010, but played every playoff minute for the Bruins) so I’d be wary about forking over a lot of dough over a good amount of years, but it isn’t because Rask happened to be in net for the Bruins collapse in Game 6.

Or, as you may remember, the Bruins collapse in 2010 that Rask was also in net for.

Even though Boston didn’t win the Stanley Cup, I’m pretty surprised that Tuukka didn’t win the Conn Smythe Trophy. He held Pittsburgh to just two goals through the Eastern Conference Final and had 17 quality starts in 22 playoff games. He had two 50-save performances, shut out the Penguins twice and the Blackhawks once.

It’s safe to say that while Rask’s future playoff performance probably won’t look like the .940 save percentage he put up this season (his career save % in the regular season was .927 and he was a .912 in the 2010 post-season) but he was very, very, clutch this season. Does that mean future clutch? Not necessarily.

The other problem though is assuming that the Bruins’ Game 6 meltdown reflects on Rask’s future performance as perhaps a non-winner. Managers should be paying for future performance and not past performance, but when looking for “proven winners”, you tend not to. Looking for a winner in net can lead to complications. Not since 2000 has a goaltender been a starter on a Stanley Cup-winning team and gone on to be a starter on a future Stanley Cup-winning team. That used to be more common during dynasties (Grant Fuhr, of course). It’s pretty rare that a team will repeat over a short span of years—Chicago is the first to win twice in a four-year span since the 2000 and 2003 New Jersey Devils—and evidently these teams have to use the same goaltender.

While the Conference Finalists were the last four Cup champions this season, only one of those teams went with the starting goaltender they had during their Cup year, and that was the most recent one.

So yeah, be wary of clutch performance. It’s good to have, but it’s not necessarily predictive. I don’t have the math on this (but Eric T. does!) but I’ve observed that the best playoff players are usually the best regular season ones. Every year there’s a Fernando Pisani, a depth guy who had a massive playoff run in 2006.

After scoring 14 times in 24 games in the 2006 playoffs, Pisani would go on to score 38 goals over the four seasons of the contract the Oilers signed him to, and none in the playoffs because Edmonton never made it back. He finished his career with 0 goals in 3 playoff games with the Blackhawks in 2011, all losses.