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Analysis

Chicago Blackhawks’ Saad-Forsberg Usage Makes Panarin Trade Worse

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CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 14: Brandon Saad
CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 14: Brandon Saad /
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The trade sending Artemi Panarin to Columbus has remained on the forefront of Chicago Blackhawks fans’ minds all season. The demotion of Brandon Saad and benching of Anton Forsberg makes it even more relevant.

This past summer, Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman made a big decision in sending Artemi Panarin to Columbus in exchange for Brandon Saad and Anton Forsberg. The risk of the move was obvious right as it was made. Panarin was coming off back-to-back seasons with 30 or more goals and more than 40 assists and was the favorite linemate for superstar Patrick Kane.

Even with a two-year extension already worked out with Panarin, Bowman saw an opportunity to add a powerful two-way forward in Saad, who had 55 goals and 51 assists in his two years in Columbus and great possession metrics. Along with Saad, he would kill two birds with one stone and find a backup goalie for Corey Crawford for the 2017-18 campaign in Forsberg.

But now, about two-thirds of the way through the first season Saad is back with the team, the forward has been demoted to the fourth line. Meanwhile, Forsberg was the backup goalie for the second straight game Tuesday — not to Crawford, but to journeyman Jeff Glass.

It is very common for coaches and front office personnel to take a look at players and say, “What have you done for me lately?” But is the demotion to the fourth line for Saad and the second straight night of backup duties for Forsberg the right move? Does it showcase that the Panarin deal was a failure?

Saad’s decline

Saad has definitely had a less-than-stellar year offensively in his second stint with the Blackhawks. The forward now sits at 13 goals and 11 assists on the year. With only 24 points in 52 games played, Saad is on pace to only score 38 points this season; well below his totals of 53, 53, 52 and 47 the last four years.

What is causing this major drop in production for the 25-year-old winger? Is he not active enough in the offensive zone? Well, Saad averaged 215 shots on goal per year in the three years prior to this season an has 153 shots on goal this year. This puts the forward on pace to actually put more than 240 shots on goal this year.

While fans may be screaming their favorite phrase “shoot the puck” at their televisions or in the United Center every night, Saad has actually been getting the puck to the net at a higher rate this season than he has any season before. Which brings us to the obvious next stat: shooting percentage.

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In Saad’s five full seasons in the league before 2017-18, he has failed to post a shooting percentage below 10 percent (11.4, 13.3, 11.3, 11.9 and 10.2 percent). This season, Saad is sitting at an 8.5 shooting percentage. By comparison, the league average shooting percentage currently sits at 9.2 percent.

There are two ways to look at this. The pessimistic side would say Saad was always scoring at too high a rate as his shooting percentage was much higher than the league average.

The optimistic side would say Saad has averaged a much higher shooting percentage than the league average for five straight years, and an 11 percent shooting percentage is much closer to what Saad should be averaging.

One factor that could account for why the shooting percentage has gone down is shot selection. Let’s take a look at the location of shots on goal for Saad in his previous last year with the Blackhawks in 2014-15, courtesy of IcyData:

Compare that visual to where Saad has been taking shots throughout the 2017-18 campaign:

The most dangerous area on the ice is in between the circles and not far out from the net. Saad excelled at getting to this area and getting shots on goal in 2014-15, a season in which he had 23 goals and an 11.3 shooting percentage. This season, that area is a bit less cluttered, and Saad’s totals in goals scored and shooting percentage have certainly gone down.

Of Saad’s 13 goals this season, three came opening night against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Take a look at where the three goals came from on the ice:

Saad still has a 58.3 percent Corsi-for this year and a 7.4 relative Corsi, so we know he has been able to create offense on the ice and limit the opponents. The frustration comes when the team gave up a dynamic scorer in Panarin and has not gotten even an average Saad scoring season in return.

If Saad is going to start lifting his goal totals and shooting percentage, going hard to the net and working to find opportunities in the slot seems to be a great place to start. We know he has the ability to work hard and get to those areas. Now, Saad just has to fight to get in those spots once again.

Should Saad be playing on the fourth line at this point in the season? Maybe coach Joel Quenneville is using it as a wake-up call for the winger and doesn’t plan on him staying there. If so, then I can understand the move for a game, or maybe two games max. But Saad has too much talent and too much of a career ahead of him to be on the basement line for long. His skills are needed elsewhere.

The Forsberg/Glass debate

With Crawford still fighting his way back from injury, the Blackhawks have been turning to two different goalies in his absence in Forsberg and Glass. As noted, Forsberg was brought in to be Crawford’s backup this season and was a key piece in the Panarin trade.

So why has Forsberg not been able to consistently stay in the lineup with Crawford out? Honestly, I am not quite sure.

On one hand, you have Forsberg who has posted a .911 save percentage in his 19 games (16 of them starts) and a 2.94 goals-against average. On the other hand, Glass has a .908 save percentage in 10 games (nine starts) and a 3.24 goals-against average.

Maybe Forsberg’s numbers are only slightly better than Glass’, but there is one other major difference: While they are both relatively inexperienced in the NHL, Forsberg is 25 while Glass is 32. As nice of a story as it was to see Glass finally make it to the NHL and get his first start this season after years of traveling around minor league teams, Forsberg is the younger prospect who could have a much larger future with the team.

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Forsberg is signed through next season before he becomes a restricted free agent. Perhaps the Blackhawks already feel they have seen enough from Forsberg to determine he isn’t going to work out moving forward, but I don’t see 16 starts for a 25-year-old being a large enough sample size.

With Crawford out with injury, it seems like the most opportune time to give Forsberg every opportunity to gain experience and try to learn his way in the NHL.

For comparison, Corey Crawford started getting consistent starts in the 2010-11 NHL season. In his first 19 games played that year, Crawford posted a .915 save percentage, just a bit higher than Forsberg’s .911 this year. Crawford was 26 years old.

This is not to say Forsberg is the next Crawford or franchise goaltender. Simply put, we don’t exactly know what the Blackhawks have in Forsberg yet.

He is young, he does not have a lot of experience, and he has shown both great games and poor ones. But as long as Crawford is out, there is no reason not to find out what you have in a goaltender who was a key piece in the Panarin deal last summer.

Summary

The frustrations with the 2017-18 Blackhawks are seemingly endless, but the ones that have come out of the Panarin trade may be the most interesting in the tale of this season.

Saad has shown he is still a strong two-way player and can drive possession for his team, but his low shooting percentage has coaches and fans alike asking if it was the right move to reacquire the forward.

Meanwhile, Forsberg has not been a star in net this season, but his benching in favor of Glass is a frustrating sign the coaches are not willing to let the goalie develop or have already given up hope he can be a competent backup for Crawford when he returns.

Next: What Happens When Crawford Returns?

It may still be far too early to say that the Panarin deal was a bad move by Bowman, but in a season marred in mediocrity, the move hurts even more. If more contributions don’t come soon from Saad and Forsberg, Blackhawks fans will rightfully call the trade a major failure for the team and will be asking themselves for years to come, “What if the ‘Hawks had kept Panarin?”

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