By Larry Wigge
The Chicago Blackhawks quickly learned, when you put Brandon Saad in an NHL setting and surround him with elite talent, a transformation occurs. Life mirrors the greats.
Sometimes Saad has to catch himself for trying to pick off one of the talents of one of the Hawks. For the last month of the regular season, the Pittsburgh native, would look to his right and see the things that Jonathan Toews does -- the way he protects the puck, the way he mucks with passion in the corners, the way he creates scoring chances out of thin air.
"Being a player and being able to play with him, you notice just how good he really is," Saad said in a appreciating way.
On a team that boasts superstars up and down the lineup -- Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Nick Leddy and Niklas Hjalmarsson -- Saad scored 10 goals and 17 assists in 46 games, ranking fifth among NHL rookie scorers. But he was first in plus-minus rankings at plus 17.
Saad had points in 19 of the last 28 (seven goals and 17 assists) contests. He did that playing on the Hawks No. 1 line of Toews and Hossa.
But since the playoffs have begun, Saad has shown his versatility by working his way up and down the lineup. In the playoffs, he has been used in all capacities and had four assists in 14 games.
Two of those assists came in Chicago's Game 2 victory 4-2 over the Los Angeles Kings.
In other words, he hasn't exactly created his niche with the Hawks.
"He's one of those players that he doesn't really need to show up on the scoresheet to be effective," winger Patrick Sharp said. "He's such a powerful skater, plays well defensively, creates loose pucks.
"In Game 2, he stripped a lot of pucks, killed a lot of plays. This time of year, that's really important."
Saad became the first NHL player since Colorado center Ryan O'Reilly in 2009 to be selected outside the first round and make an NHL opening-night roster in his draft year. To maker such an imprint on the NHL roster hadn't been done since 2003-04, when Patrice Bergeron emerged as a second-round player with Boston to accomplish the feat.
That's being in some pretty heady company.
Suggest Saad has arrived on the verge of stardom ahead of schedule and coach Joel Quenneville will disagree.
"He belongs there," Quenneville said. "I'm not surprised at all. Last year, we saw him do some amazing things and he went back to (Saginaw) and almost dominated. He's so strong and big on the puck. We like the progress."
Asked how Saad now compares to Toews then, Quenneville complimented the rookie simply by pausing to consider how truly similar their styles are.
"That's a pretty interesting question," Quenneville said. "Johnny might have a bit more pace to his game, around the puck. Both guys follow the puck, or it follows them around, very well. Defensively, they're both responsible.
"Johnny was probably more highly touted. But Brandon might be under the radar more."
It all started on a hockey rink outside Pittsburgh -- Penguin Country -- when Brandon was 3 learning to skate and shoot the puck like Mario Lemieux alongside brother George, who is two years older. When George left the ice in tears, Brandon urged him to come back and play.
"Brandon was like, 'Come on, George, you don't want to play hockey?' " Sandra said. "He was always a natural."
Skating faster than the other kids posed only one problem for Saad: He originally wanted to be a goaltender.
"We said Brandon, 'You can't be a goalie, you have too much speed, nobody can catch you,' " Sandra said, who was a stay at home mother.
George Saad, Brandon's dad, was an industrial engineer and former soccer player in Syria. He earned a degree at Columbia University, then furthered his education at the University of Pittsburgh.
"Dad is my idol," says Saad. "He came to the United States with no money, alone, didn't speak English. He worked hard to build a career and is very good at his profession: industrial engineering, buying and selling commercial real estate. He pursued his dream—to come to America and start a new life. My thought was that if the hockey thing doesn't work out, I can always get an education. He was behind me all the way, and still is."
It was that maturity that stood out to former Blackhawks player and Flames coach Greg Gilbert, who coached Saad last year at Saginaw. Gilbert raved about Saad's innate hockey sense and vision in traffic. But nothing impressed him more than seeing Saad work in the weight room. Gilbert made Brandon captain at Saginaw -- based on his plus-35 and 34 goals and 42 assists in just 44 games.
That leaves the one question: Why wasn't Saad a first-round pick? He was chosen the second-round, 43rd overall, in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. He had a groin injury stall his production. But ...
"His talent is there and we're the beneficiaries of it," said GM Stan Bowman. "He's 18 years old and he plays a pro game already. We're just fortunate to be able to add him when we did. I'm really happy for him."
"It's a little motivation, but I try not to worry about the past too much," Saad said. "It's a fresh start (here) and it's only the beginning."
Working on his background is fun.
"The year I was born, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup," Saad said of Pittsburgh victory over four-game sweep of the Blackhawks in 1992. "I watched a lot of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, who were pretty good players, obviously. They were fun to watch."
Saad didn't have his room growing up pasted with Lemieux posters.
"Not my whole room, but I was definitely a fan," he recalled.
Assistant GM Norm Maciver said, "Saad just thinks like very good NHL players do. Hockey sense is something you can't teach ... but you'll always have it."
Saad can't explain where that hockey sense came from, but he's thrilled to have it in his arsenal.
"I'm not sure how it developed," Saad said. "You can't exactly work on that, so being born with that quality has been a big help for me."
There are certain talents and skills that Brandon Saad has.
"He's physically fearless," Toews said. "He can go in and get the puck and come out when he has two guys draped on him. It looks like he's going to fall over, but he doesn't give up and he stays on his feet to battle his way out. His confidence has been rising by the game as the season has gone along, and the skill set he already has is pretty amazing."
Toews looks at Saad and marvels.
"He looks like he's 35 years old ... but he's 20," Toews answers, smiling. "He plays like he's a lot older than he is, too."