Brandon Saad‘s demotion to the fourth line in Friday’s practice was yet another chapter in the curious case of the “Manchild.” How can a player regress so dramatically?
When Brandon Saad broke onto the NHL scene in 2011, he had an immediate impact. The Chicago Blackhawks’ second-round draft pick of 2011 was a surprise addition to the opening night roster due to his impressive training camp performance.
He was returned to his junior team after five days, but returned to the ‘Hawks in April 2012. He had an impressive showing for the end of the regular season and into the playoffs.
Such mature play from a young player earned him the nickname “Manchild.” But the Manchild has regressed just as movie character Benjamin Button went from a baby-man to a man-baby.
Raw talent is one thing
Saad’s raw physical talent is undeniable. He’s a powerful skater who can drive to the net and create scoring chances off that rush.
In previous seasons, he was teamed with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa on the top forward line. This line put together a scary combination of size, speed and skill to dominate the offensive zone with puck possession.
There were growing comparisons between Saad and Hossa which earned Saad another nickname of “Baby Hossa.” The sky seemed to be the limit for this rising star.
The most dangerous game
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When Saad’s entry-level contract came to a close in 2015, his agent decided to play a dangerous game of chicken with Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman.
Bowman didn’t flinch and dealt 22-year-old Saad to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Artem Anisimov. So, after winning the Stanley Cup twice with the ‘Hawks, Saad found himself on the lowly Jackets, where he signed a hefty six-year, $36M contract.
Saad was a bright spot with Columbus in his first season, even earning an All-Star selection in 2016. But playing for coach John Tortorella can be a roller coaster, and Saad’s growth as a player may have suffered there. In a strange twist of fate, he was traded back to the ‘Hawks in 2017 for the dynamic Artemi Panarin.
Getting curiouser and curiouser
Bowman strategized that a reunion of Saad with Toews would reignite Toews’ elite center play. But in the the first season of this highly touted reunion, the expected results never came.
The top forward line of Saad-Toews-Richard Panik just never got going, and neither did the entire team. Saad scored a lowly 35 points in 82 games.
And now, in the first four games of this season, Saad has produced no goals and one assist for one point with only seven shots on goal. Coincidentally, Toews has regained his form this young season while playing with the faster and more skilled Alex DeBrincat and Dominik Kahun.
Not only has Saad’s production fallen off a cliff for last season and this new one, but his play in general has been mediocre at best. After working this summer with a development coach, Saad does not appear to have benefited from the extra work.
Let’s take a look at his performance.
The historic metrics
In 2016-17, Saad continued to play the heavy puck possession game. From Micah Blake McCurdy’s HockeyViz.com, we see the visuals of his performances.
The Blue Jackets saw a considerable increase in offensive zone time when he was on the ice. The heat map shows that his presence generated heavy shots in the offensive danger zone and shot suppression in his own end. He was a true top-six forward.
But upon his return to Chicago in 2017 bad things happened. Saad continued with high offensive possession time, but couldn’t finish off scoring chances. Lack of finish resulted in turnovers leading to high scoring chances for the opposition. We can see that in the heat map for shots against.
This season’s metrics
Saad’s presence this season slightly decreases offensive zone time, as measured in unblocked shots for.
But his presence significantly increases opposition offensive zone time, as evidenced here:
The dreaded eye test
Metrics can be misleading at times. Any metrics can be interpreted differently if affected by outcome bias. The eye test confirms what the metrics indicate.
What we have seen from Saad has been powerful skating accompanied by poor passing skills, ineffective shot selection and poor play recognition.
The Oct. 11 overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild featured Saad at his worst. Saad had a golden scoring chance on a breakaway but could only nudge a shot against goalie Devan Dubnyk.
His selfish play in the 3-on-3 overtime session cost his team dearly. Instead of making an area play, he decided to carry the puck deep into the zone and turned the puck over.
The play quickly went the other way, hanging Duncan Keith out to dry in trying to defend a 2-on-1. The metrics will back up the eye test.
Saad right now is simply a boat anchor. It’s time for him to figure things out. It’s time for the Manchild to man up and play up to his abilities. Here “at the end of the day” he says all the cliches and fails to say “I just need to play better.”
It’s time for him to change his mindset, contrary to what he’s saying.
Tonight, the hated St. Louis Blues march into the United Center for another episode of a bitter rivalry. Let’s hope the Saad of old decides to march in as well.