Checking in on Brandon Hickey

This week I’m going to do a few posts about NCAA prospects for various sites around the Nation Network. Most will be based on in-person viewings, speaking with their coaches, and so on. Some will not. Okay that’s it bye.

On Saturday, Boston University will play its first game in two weeks to kick off what it hopes will be a run to the Frozen Four for the second straight year. The Terriers will play the University of Denver Pioneers, having crashed out of the Hockey East tournament in the quarterfinals with two straight losses to a very good UMass Lowell team.

I saw both of those games and, as per usual, I tracked the play of Flames draft pick Brandon Hickey (a size-y offensive defenseman taken in the third round in 2014). And unfortunately what I saw continued something of a troubling trend.

A little more than a month and a half ago I told you Hickey was playing very well on BU’s second pairing and that was true. In the games I’d seen, he was a massive possession force, dominating middling competition to the tune of a plus-4.9 CF% (56.2 percent) and plus-32.7 GF% (72.7%). Now granted, that latter number is never going to last, and it was only in seven games of viewing, but in the last seven weeks I’ve nearly doubled those live observations, and his play has steadily declined.

The big picture

This is where I’m at for the full season with him at this point, having seen more than one-third of BU’s games total:

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 3.05.32 PM

Nice to be that far above 50 percent, but being a possession drag against middling competition isn’t where you want to be. You’ll also note that the team’s goals-for percentage when he’s on the ice has returned to earth, even as he’s still apparently driving goalscoring.

He’s also still an excellent generator of his own shot attempts, and the quality of his shot remains high. When he gets it through to the net, he can create chaos in high-danger areas and that leads to quality scoring chances. It’s his play in his own end that’s developed into a problem.

Recent play

But during that time the quality of Hickey’s play is very much down. In the six games I’ve seen (out of his 13 played), he’s been just 51.6% CF, 46.7% FF, 46.8% SF, and 36.4% GF. All bad numbers. Some of that is on the goalies, because BU hasn’t been getting good goaltending in the games I’ve seen this year in general (.896 at 5-on-5). But in the last five games I’ve seen in particular, it’s been awful: seven goals on 34 shots.

And that’s not just bad luck. In the games against Lowell that saw BU bounced from the league playoffs, the Terriers conceded eight goals in all situations, and six at 5-on-5. He was on the ice for five of the eight, and three of the six. In the first game in particular (a 3-2 loss) he personally blew the assignment that led to all three goals. It was an ugly night.

However, as is Hickey’s wont he was also a huge driver in attack and helped generate BU’s first goal of the game.

Said coach David Quinn after that one, evaluating the impact Hickey has with long-time partner Brandon Fortunato:

“They’ve been a good tandem for the last two years. Obviously Fortunato has a lot of ability and skill, and Hickey can really skate and shoot the puck. So, we’d like all of our defensemen to get involved offensively. In this day and age, if you’re gonna create offense you’ve got to have five guys involved. It’s the only way you’re gonna be able to score. It’s something we certainly preach, and we’re no different than most teams.”

This might not come across in the text, but the tone of that was a little politic, to be honest. Talking about the offensive contributions of a defenseman (or defensemen) on a night when he/they got smoked for three goals in a loss isn’t top of most coaches’ list of things they want to do.

The next night wasn’t much better for Hickey personally (two goals against, both at 5-on-5), and it was much worse for the team (a 5-0 loss that frankly should have been uglier).

The takeaway

In the last seven weeks, I’ve seen Hickey’s PK time diminish steadily, to the point where he’s being used more as a third-pairing guy in that game situation. Maybe Quinn sees him as being more useful to the cause if his minutes are devoted to offense only, which I think is a perfectly reasonable deployment.

But more troubling is that this offensive defenseman hasn’t been getting himself involved in the offense lately, at least as far as points are concerned. Hickey has just 5-3-8 in 35 games this season, down from 6-11-17 in 41 last year, a decline of about 44 percent in terms of points per game. And that’s after starting the year 5-2-7 in his first 16 contests. So just one assist in his last 19 games, and that’s a big reason for concern from a development standpoint. He has also put just 40 shots on goal in the last 19, in comparison with 44 in the first 16. That’s a point of concern as well.

I’ve said before that I see Hickey as potentially being in the NHL for a decade-plus, but now I’m less sure of that. Unless something went wrong for him (injury, etc.) it’s hard not to be discouraged by his play in 2016.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    Is there anyway to adjust his possession numbers, in light of the poor goaltending. Also, I’m curious what the eye test looks like? Aside from an above average skater that gets pucks to the net, how does he played appear?

  • Craig

    This is definitely concerning, and I’m not sure the trends of college defenders, but luckily he has two more years to try and iron out his defensive game, which generally takes a bit longer.

    This means Hickey may not be the game changer he looked to be developing into, but hopefully he can at least become a bit of a PP specialist on the bottom pair. Still looks like Andersson is our best defensive prospect though.

  • supra steve

    If he is stagnating, could we see him make the jump to the AHL after this season? Certainly worth a try to see if the Flames staff can help correct his development curve…though, if hockey MAY NOT be providing him with a retirement package, he may want to finish school.

    • MattyFranchise

      Well, he’s only 19, he’s still a sophomore, and if he puts pen to paper on a professional contract he won’t be able to play and go to school at the same time.

      He’s playing for a very defense focused team, maybe he’s just having a down year?

      Anyway, he’ll likely continue on in school. If I was one of his parents that’s what I’d tell him. I’d tell his agent that too.

      Give him another year before talking about contracts. If he improves, great, if not, he’ll be cheaper to send to the AHL on his ELC.

  • freethe flames

    Despite Lambert’s report he is still a meaningful prospect. If he turns out to be the fifth best defensive prospect that we have (Andersson, Kylington, Kulak, Culkan) on the Heat next year I am okay with that. Keep a level head when assessing prospects, very few are ready 3 years after being drafted. It’s okay to be patient.

  • The GREAT Walter White

    Wow; that 2014 draft year was even worse than I thought for the Flames!!!

    Outside of Bennett we sharted the bed:

    2 second round picks: Mason McDonald and Hunter Smith.

    2 third round picks: Hickey and the Bolig trade.

    Bolig will be the best of the bunch as the other 3 won’t make the NHL.

    i knew McDonald and Smith were duds right from the start, but Hickey too?!

    WW

  • KiLLKiND

    This report is quite concerning, but it’s still very early on in his career to write him off. He will likely play at least next season and possibly his senior year at BU then make the jump to the AHL. He can then begin 3 years of development in the AHL learning how to play the game professionally. I think this season isn’t as big of a reflection of who he will become and more of a year of learning how to persevere through the tough times. He can take the summer to try and learn from his mistakes, and come out better than before.

    He is still a great prospect that made Canada’s World Junior team despite playing NCAA. While his defense could use work he will learn that as he takes on more of the load next year. For a 3rd rounder he was never going to be like Mangiapane or Andersson, but he is still more than capable of playing in the NHL. I do have doubts on whether he will be in the top 4, but he could slot in nicely alongside Nakladal for a well-rounded 3rd pairing

    Brodie – Hamilton

    Giordano – Kylington

    Hickey – Nakladal

    Either way we have an abundance of potential 3rd pairing left shooting d-men Hickey, Kulak, Culkin, T-Spoon, and Hickey. Hickey having an off year isn’t as troubling as it would have been before last years draft where we acquired, Hamilton, Andersson, and Kylington. Andersson should be in the top 4, he could hopefully slot in alongside Kylington as those two together would be unreal! At this point our defence looks like it should be solid once we get Wideman, Smid, and Engelland off the books. This isn’t saying that Engelland has been bad, but we could get his level of play for a lot cheaper, or have one of our prospects that has a lot more potential instead.

  • Stu Cazz

    The only time I seen Hickey play was in the world juniors….unfortunately he looked like a very nervous low confidence kid….hopefully that was a learning experience and he can bounce back….