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Chicago Blackhawks’ Brandon Saad: Analyzing His Two Seasons Away

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COLUMBUS, OH - APRIL 6: Brandon Saad
COLUMBUS, OH - APRIL 6: Brandon Saad /
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Brandon Saad is a member of the Chicago Blackhawks once again, but it’s worth noting how he fared in his time with the Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s been two years since Brandon Saad wore a Chicago Blackhawks sweater. You probably remember the days he skated alongside Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but it is certainly possible you don’t know what he has been up to since he was traded to the Eastern Conference and the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Obviously, he must have been doing something right to warrant general manager Stan Bowman shipping away Artemi Panarin (a top-10 scoring forward from the last two seasons) in order to bring Saad back to Madison and Damen. So let’s take a look at Saad’s time in Columbus and what to expect in his return to the Windy City.

2015-16 season

Entering the 2015-16 season, Columbus was seen as an exciting, up and coming squad. The acquisition of Saad for Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, Corey Tropp and Blackhawks legend Jeremy Morin gave Columbus a nice set of forwards.

Saad joined Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Johansen to give the Jackets some nice offensive abilities and depth. This on a team that already had one of the best goalies in the league in Sergei Bobrovsky.

But the excitement quickly faded when the year began. The Blue Jackets lost their first eight games of the year, giving up an average of 4.6 goals per game. This poor start saw coach Todd Richards fired and John Tortorella brought in to replace him before the calendar had even flipped to November.

Columbus would continue to struggle throughout the year. It eventually finished the season with a 34-40-8 record, fourth worst in the NHL. Things had not lived up to the excitement around the team heading into the year.

One of the bright spots in a pretty lousy campaign, however, was Saad. He led the team in goals with 31, seven of them game winners (no one else on the team had more than three). He also tied Atkinson for the team lead in points with 53.

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Though his plus/minus was only a plus-1, he was one of only two Blue Jackets who played at least 50 games to end the season in the positive. He also had the third highest Corsi-for percentage on the team at 50.4 percent among regular players. That’s not a number to be thrilled about, but somewhat respectable on such a bad team.

Only seven everyday skaters finished above 50 percent, and Saad’s relative Corsi-for percentage was the highest in his career at 2.9 percent. He was also the lone representative of the Blue Jackets in Nashville for the All-Star Game that year.

While the numbers don’t necessarily jump off the page, it was clear that Saad was not just a product of strong linemates that he had on the Stanley Cup-winning team he left in Chicago. He stayed consistent in his point totals (up to 53 from 52 in his last year with the ’Hawks), and his average time on ice only dropped two seconds.

While playing with a sub-par team, a case could quickly be made that Saad’s game was not purely due to having several 100 Greatest NHL Players as teammates.

2016-17 season

Unless you really weren’t paying attention to the league last year, you probably already know that Columbus turned things around after its ugly 2015-16 campaign. The Jackets finished the year at 50-24-8, the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.

The highlight of the season was from late November to early January, when the Jackets didn’t lose a game. Their sixteen straight wins may have come up one short of the NHL record for consecutive wins, but it was the longest streak in the NHL since 1993.

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  • It was a season that ended quickly in a five-game series against the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins (a particularly unfair first-round seeding due to the NHL’s divisional bracket focus), but there was still plenty to celebrate at the NHL awards a few months later. Tortorella won the Jack Adams Award for best coach, and Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy for the second time in his career as best goalie in the NHL.

    The success of Columbus’ turnaround definitely included a strong contribution from Saad. He followed up his first year with the Jackets with another 53-point season (third on the team) in which he played all 82 games. He boasted the second highest plus/minus on the team at plus-23 (tied for sixteenth in the NHL).

    His possession numbers were great, tying the team high for Corsi-for percentage among regular skaters at 54.8 percent and holding the highest relative Corsi-for percentage at 6.4 percent (good enough for 19th in the NHL among skaters playing 70 or more games).

    One separate non-stat to note, however, was Saad’s relationship with his coach, Tortorella. While Tortorella did win the Jack Adams (his second in his career), he did not always see eye to eye with Saad.

    Tortorella has been known for being a little … let’s say fiery in his coaching style. Over their two years together in Columbus, Saad and his coach got into a few arguments. Most notably, Saad was benched in Game 1 of their series with Pittsburgh this past spring after a turnover from Saad and an argument between him and Tortorella on the bench. After the game, The Columbus Dispatch quoted Tortorella saying he wanted more from Saad:

    "“Saader needs to be a big part of this. I thought that line in the first period, it was their best period. It deteriorated from there. I was going with who I thought was going at that particular time in the third period…He needs to be that guy for us. Not lie in the weeds, but he needs to be that guy for us with some youth on the team.”"

    How much should we read into the arguments with Tortorella is hard to say. Tortorella is not the easiest coach to play for in the league, to say the least. While he does have experience (and in the playoffs to boot), it is interesting seeing Torts wanting Saad, who is only 24, to be the leader for the youth on the team.

    I am not overly concerned that this is a sign of insubordination or confrontation that Saad will be bringing back with him to Chicago, but it is noteworthy for his tenure in Columbus.

    2017-18 expectations

    Since re-acquiring Saad, it is easy to assume that he will likely be paired up once again with Toews on the ’Hawks’ first line. With the strong possession numbers Saad has continued to show in Columbus, this should give a really nice boost to what was a bit of a carousel line over the last two years.

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    His big frame and strong puck skills make him a solid two-way forward (he actually received 10 Selke Trophy votes last year), and that will certainly be something the ’Hawks need with Marian Hossa out for the 2017-18 season. But on top of all of this, Saad really brings a great amount of consistency that you can expect to continue in his second stint in Chicago.

    Saad has yet to play fewer than 78 games in his four full seasons in the NHL. His points-per-game numbers have come in at 0.60, 0.63, 0.68 and 0.65 in his four NHL years. While the scoring numbers may not reach what you shipped away in Panarin (0.96 and 0.90 PPG in his two years in Chicago), it is the consistent play, the two-way abilities on the ice and the perfect fit for the top line that makes Saad so valuable to the ’Hawks.

    If he stays consistent with his other four years of play, you can expect somewhere around 80 games played, 24 goals, 27 assists and 51 points for his offensive numbers.

    Will this acquisition make the ’Hawks a better team than they would have been keeping Panarin? It’s a bit of an unfair question being asked, honestly, as both players bring very different attributes to their teams.

    Panarin’s pure scoring ability and chemistry with Kane is not something Saad or any other acquisition brought in this summer will be able to replicate. But the defensive game Saad brings to the team is something the ’Hawks definitely needed more of from their forwards,. This is especially true with the loss of Hossa and the lack of depth on the blue line.

    Next: Blackhawks Defenseman Brian Campbell Retires

    Let’s put it this way: The trade definitely makes the ’Hawks a different team than the one that was swept out of the playoffs back in April. Whether Saad makes the team better or worse remains to be seen.

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