Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Brandon Saad: The man-child starts again with Columbus

By Larry Wigge

In the evolution of sports, there are trends and upswings. This was supposed to be a breakout season for Brandon Saad.

After helping the Chicago Blackhawks to two Stanley Cups in his first three full seasons in the NHL, the Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, native, looked to yet another run.

But ...

Saad watched as his contract ran out and with Chicago battling the salary cap, he became yet another victim. He was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets with prospects Michael Palotta and Alex Broadhurst for Artem Anisimov, Jeremy Morin, Corey Tropp and Marko Dano on June 30.

The 6-1, 202 pounder never saw that coming.

On a team that boasts superstars up and down the lineup -- Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, Saad was starting all over in Columbus.

With the Blue Jackets, Saad has put together 19 goals and 16 assists  at the All-Star break, which would surpass his previous career high of 52 points set last season.

"With all those guys in Chicago, I wasn't likely to get picked," Saad said rather reluctantly. "You always think that one day you'll get to go and experience it for yourself. I’m fortunate it came this quick."

There have been years of promise growing up in Pittsburgh ... and playing in Chicago.

"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. They were fun to watch."

Brandon Saad didn't have his room growing up pasted with Lemieux posters.

"Not my whole room, but I was definitely a fan," he recalled.

Now this is where the real evolution began.

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."

Sandra, his mom, is a typical stay-at-home mother, who used to drive Brandon and his older brother George to hockey practice.

There's more. At an early age, Brandon wanted to become a goaltender. Not so fast.

Said Sandra, "We said Brandon, 'You can't be a goalie, you have too much speed, nobody can catch you.' "

His mom grew up with football. Gil Mace, Sandra father, was an NFL official, who worked Super Bowl XVIII in 1984 as a back judge and Super Bowl XXI in 1987 as a side judge.

Brandon and football?

"Growing up, especially being in Pittsburgh with how well the Steelers did in the past, I was always a fan of the game," he said. "I played a lot of sports growing up and football was fun for me, too, but I always had the most fun with hockey. So by the time I hit high school, that's the career I chose. I had a lot of success at it as a kid ... and so that's part of why I picked it."

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," Chicago GM Stan Bowman once said. "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."

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. The only other one was Patrice Bergeron to make such an imprint on the NHL roster hadn't been done since 2003-04.

When last we visited Brandon Saad, it was after Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning and it was as if he was waiting to show Chicago and the rest of the hockey world his best yet.

"I loved his game tonight," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "Great power move to the net. Gives us speed. Use him in all situations. He's fast, he's big, he's strong, he's dangerous. Very good performance."

Saad walked out of the corner and bullied his way to the front of the net where his backhand beat rookie goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy five-hole along the ice 6 minutes, 22 seconds into the third period.

It was Saad's fourth goal in his past six games and fifth in his past eight games.

Another former Blackhawk Patrick Sharp, now with Dallas, raves about Saad.

"He's one of those players that he doesn't really need to show up on the scoresheet to be effective," Sharp said. "He's such a powerful skater, plays well defensively, creates loose pucks."

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 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."

Clearly, Brandon Saad, this man-child, just has to start his career all over with the Blue Jackets.

"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."

Clearly the big stage doesn't challenge Saad. Game after game, he is still a dominant, consistent force.

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