Chicago Blackhawks’ Brandon Saad: Measuring His Scoring Potential

Brandon Saad quickly made his impact felt in returning to the Chicago Blackhawks, as he tallied a hat trick in Thursday’s preseason game against Detroit. But what can we expect in more meaningful games?

Here’s something that’ll get your attention: In his first game with the Chicago Blackhawks in two years, Brandon Saad had a hat trick. Yeah, it was a preseason game against mostly minor league talent from the Detroit Red Wings, but you still don’t see three-goal games very often in the NHL.

Here’s something else that might have gotten your attention after the Blackhawks beat the Red Wings 6-1 on Thursday, courtesy Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times:

Why is this such a big deal, at least in my eyes? Well, Saad maxed out at 23 goals during a full 2014-15 regular season in Chicago. He spent some of it playing alongside Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa when those two were a lot closer to clicking than they are now.

These days, Saad is be considered the guy who will revive Toews offensively, while Hossa is set to miss the 2017-18 season with a skin disease. But also these days, Saad is two seasons older and wiser as an NHL player. He now has a 30-goal season under his belt (31 in 2015-16).

It’d be ridiculous to use what happened in a preseason game against non-NHL competition as a marker for what we can expect from Saad moving forward. However, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to analyze the idea of Saad being a consistent 30- or 40-goal scorer in Chicago moving forward.

Saad’s offensive progression thus far

After getting traded from Chicago to Columbus in the 2015 offseason, Saad quickly found himself under the reign of noted crazy guy John Tortorella with the Jackets. Torts didn’t really know what to do with Saad and was actually using him on the fourth line for a time.

This may have sparked Saad in a way. That 2015-16 season saw him rack up his only 30-goal season to this point. However, it was also done with a 13.3 shooting percentage, the only time so far in his career that number has gotten out of the 11s. His goal total last season dipped to 24 as his shot percentage fell to 11.4.

His first year in Columbus also marked a career high for Saad in shots attempted, at 233. He had maxed out at 203 in Chicago, and his total dropped to 210 last season with the Jackets. This is interesting when compared to his Corsi-for mark, though.

Saad posted a possession rate of 50.4 percent in 2015-16, when he received 52.8 percent of his starts in the offensive zone. That Corsi number leapt to 54.8 percent last season, but his offensive-zone starts also catapulted to 57.8 percent.

In short, Saad was getting off more shots and finding the net more often in his first season with the Jackets despite not always getting the best zone starts. He was no Marcus Kruger in that regard, but he also wasn’t starting almost 60 percent of his shifts in the offensive end.

He was also facing solid competition in that 2015-16 season. Taking a page from John Pullega over at Faxes From Uncle Dale, I went and looked at some advanced stats regarding Saad, courtesy Behind The Net.

One interesting finding: Saad’s relative Corsi quality of competition number was 0.374 in 2015-16. Being a positive number and toward the higher end for this BJs team (it ranked sixth of 19 forwards measured), this means Saad was getting trotted out against some good opponents and was still scoring at a career-best pace.

This is good news, but we’ll have to see how Saad’s scoring holds up against likely even tougher competition back in Chicago. During the 2014-15 season, his Corsi Rel QoC was a whopping 1.045 with the Blackhawks. It ranked fourth on the team, behind Hossa, Toews and Joakim Nordstrom (of all people). Being centered by Toews once again, you know Saad is not getting a lot of easy zone starts.

Importance of linemates

Speaking of Toews, it’s worth noting Saad will likely start this season with Toews at center at Richard Panik on his opposite wing. It’s not the Toews of old or Hossa, but it’s also not as though Saad will be dragging these guys along.

It is important, however, to look back at his most frequent linemates in Columbus. Last season, he was teamed with Nick Foligno and Alexander Wennberg 76.3 percent of his shifts, according to Dobber Sports. Foligno posted 51 points last season, while Wennberg boasted a career-high 59 to go with Saad’s 53.

Saad’s most frequent linemates in his first season in Ohio were Wennberg (40 points), Scott Hartnell (60 points), Brandon Dubinsky (48 points) and Boone Jenner (career-high 49 points). Saad had 53 points in that season as well.

So what are we seeing here? Quite a bit of scoring when it comes to Saad being placed alongside most any other forward for an extended period the last two years. It’d be crazy to suggest this is all Saad’s doing, but it’d also be crazy to ignore that he wasn’t frequently playing with guys who put up just 10 points in a season. He scores with whomever he lines up next to.

This could mean really good news for Chicago’s top line, and just as good of news for Saad’s goal-scoring prospects. Panik had a career year last season, so you know he’s already feeling his oats. And Toews and Saad have an obvious past connection as linemates.

Things get even more upbeat when you consider Saad is just 24, and therefore likely to play with younger guys in the Chicago system over time as well. What could it mean if he winds up on the same line as Nick Schmaltz, Alex DeBrincat, Ryan Hartman and some other guys we aren’t really talking about yet?

Jenner and Wennberg were far from veterans of the league when they teamed up with Saad, and they posted some great numbers. Some of that has to do with talent (in Wennberg’s case more so), but you can’t ignore that Saad helps drive play on whatever line he occupies.

So what’s the conclusion here? I think it’s pretty easy to believe Saad can be a 30-goal scorer in the very immediate future, even if he’s taking some of the team’s tougher zone starts (he will be). The Blackhawks are going to need scoring from more spots than the second line, and Saad was a key part of a lot of Jacket scoring the previous two seasons.

Forty goals is a big number. Could I see Saad hitting it in the future? Sure. I don’t think he’s reached his peak yet, and with the right linemates, I could totally see it. But would you take Saad at 30-35 goals right away on a line with Toews and Panik, plus whatever those two wind up doing scoring-wise? I’m going to definitively say yes.