Brandon Saad (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
As the NHL season draws near, Madhouse Enforcer is taking a look at the players who will be key to the Chicago Blackhawks' chances to become the first team since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
Today's player is forward (and potential second line center) Brandon Saad.
When the Hawks drafted Saad in the second round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, it was largely viewed that the Hawks had gotten one of the steals of the draft. His speed, on-ice awareness, and scoring ability all made him one of the more talked about forwards in that draft class, and the Hawks snagging him in the second round was considered a coup by most.
During training camp in that rookie year, Saad made such an impression on the coaching staff that he ended up starting the year with the Hawks, playing in the team's first two games of the season and averaging over 14 minutes of ice time. He didn't get on the scoresheet in the contests, but he looked like he was comfortable on the ice on a team full of veterans, and even though he was reassigned to his junior team for the remainder of the year, his impact ensured that Hawks fans wouldn't soon forget about him.
After the NHL lockout ended last year, Saad once again found himself on the NHL roster after a solid campaign with the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL. He began the season playing some big time minutes with stalwarts like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and for a good chunk of the season played on the top line with Toews and Marian Hossa. His production did tail off towards the end of the year as the grind of the season took a toll on him (in fairness, not many 20 year olds would be able to handle playing 48 games in 99 days at any level, much less the NHL), but he made enough of an impression league-wide that he was nominated for the Calder Trophy, given to the league's
rookie of the year.
Now, Saad is facing a new challenge beyond just surviving a full 82 game campaign. Not only will be potentially be vying for a spot on the US Men's Olympic team during the first half of the season, but it's becoming more realistic that he could begin the season as the Hawks' second line center, with Hossa and Patrick Sharp skating alongside him.
There have been growing pains through the early stages of training camp, with Saad having to get used to the defensive responsibilities and the limitations placed on him as a center. He has adapted quickly to the role however, learning to maintain correct positioning at all times and being a good facilitator when he does have the puck.
The interesting thing about the transition is that, unlike guys like Kane and Sharp who have also been tried out at the second line center spot, Saad has never played the position for any length of time. All of the nuances that go along with it are new to him, and despite the unfamiliarity with the role, he has turned heads with how quickly he is picking everything up.
Obviously, the leash is going to be very short with him when it comes to keeping the job once the season starts (assuming he gets it), especially with Brandon Pirri and Drew LeBlanc both seeking the position as well. Those guys have been playing center for quite some time, and both have solid resumes to boot, with Pirri leading the AHL in scoring last year and LeBlanc winning the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey.
Even if Saad does end up losing the job to one of those guys, odds are that Joel Quenneville will still throw him into the fire with some serious top-six minutes, as well as third line duty to boot. That added pressure of playing meaningful minutes while trying to adapt to a position AND dealing with the grind of an 82 game season for the first time means that all eyes really will be on Saad this
season, and also means that he is going to have to be vigilant against the perils of the sophomore slump that has befallen so many other players.
Whether or not Saad will be able to handle the pressure will be a key storyline for the Hawks this season, as they will once again be relying upon depth in their roster to compensate for the compressed schedule caused by the Winter Olympic break in February. If Saad ends up experiencing a second-year dip in his production, then it could have consequences for a Hawks team not only trying to win a second straight title, but also for the team's chances of holding off a St. Louis Blues team that has an eye on the Central Division title, and the home ice advantage that comes with it come playoff time.