To help celebrate NBC Rivalry Night, NHL.com will look at a rivalry within the rivalry of the featured game on Wednesday nights. For this week, we are wondering which emerging young forward, Chris Kreider of the New York Rangers or Brandon Saad of the Chicago Blackhawks, would be the best option around which to build a team.
The 2011-12 season was bookended by two players who made stunning NHL debuts, one at the start of the season and another at the end.
Brandon Saad was taken by the Chicago Blackhawks with the 43rd pick of the 2011 NHL Draft. He was invited to training camp, but it was assumed he'd quickly be returned to his junior team, the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League. Instead he earned an opening-night roster spot, becoming one of two players since the 2003-04 season to be picked outside the first round and go on to make his NHL team's opening-night roster.
Saad lasted two games with the Blackhawks before being returned to Saginaw. He returned to the Blackhawks for the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, getting into two games in Chicago's first-round series against the Phoenix Coyotes.
Chris Kreider, the 19th pick of the 2009 draft, started the 2011-12 season as a junior at Boston College. But days after leading the Eagles to the 2012 NCAA championship, he signed a contract with the New York Rangers and made his NHL debut April 16, 2012, in Game 3 of the Rangers' first-round playoff series against the Ottawa Senators.
Kreider went on to be a key performer for the Rangers in their run to the Eastern Conference Final, scoring five goals, including two game-winners.
Now full-time NHL players, Kreider and Saad have emerged as key young components on teams with playoff hopes and championship aspirations. But as Kreider's Rangers prepare to face Saad's Blackhawks at United Center in the Wednesday Night Rivalry game (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2), is there one that would be more desirable if you were looking to start a team today?
Let's break it down and reach a conclusion:
Kreider made a seamless move from college hockey to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2012. He made his debut in Game 3 against the Senators, playing 11:11 at left wing on a line with center Brad Richards and right wing Marian Gaborik. His first goal, with 40.3 seconds left in second period of Game 6 against the Senators, held up as the game-winner and extended the series to a seventh game. He scored another goal in Game 1 of the second round against the Washington Capitals, which also held up as the game-winner, and assisted on an insurance goal in a 3-1 win.
He then scored in each of the first three games of the conference final against the New Jersey Devils and finished tied for third on team with five goals while averaging 13:09 of ice time.
The lockout forced Kreider to start the 2012-13 season in the American Hockey League and he struggled to find his groove. He was in the Rangers' lineup when the NHL season started, but had one goal in seven games when he was sent back to the AHL. He picked up frequent-flyer miles on the shuttle from Hartford to New York. He was sent to the minors three times, and when he was in the NHL he rarely produced, totaling two goals and one assist in 23 games. He averaged 10:06 of ice time per game, but played more than 12 minute eight times all season.
He had one goal in eight playoff games, but it came in overtime of Game 4 of the second round against the Boston Bruins, preventing the Rangers from being swept.
The offseason saw coach John Tortorella fired and replaced by Alain Vigneault, who offered Kreider a clean slate. He started the season in the AHL, but has thrived since being called up Oct. 20.
He scored in back-to-back games Oct. 29 and 31, followed by a career-best three assists Nov. 2 against the Carolina Hurricanes. He had his best game to date Nov. 30 against Tortorella and his new team, the Vancouver Canucks, scoring his first NHL hat trick.
Heading into the game Wednesday against the Blackhawks, Kreider has a team-best 11 goals. He has 23 points in 36 games and only once has gone more than two games without a point -- a three-game stretch from Dec. 8 to Dec. 12.
Kreider is averaging 16:40 of ice time per game and also has a team-best plus-9 rating after going a minus-5 in 50 regular-season and playoff games playing for Tortorella.
Saad made it so the Blackhawks had to keep him on the roster at the start of the 2011-12 season. When the team opened the season against the Dallas Stars on Oct. 7, 2011, Saad was on the ice, starting the game at left wing on the top line alongside Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp. He had two shots on goal, blocked one shot and had one takeaway in 13:05 of ice time. Saad played one more game, the next night in Chicago in a rematch against the Stars. This time he started the game at left wing on a line with Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, and had one shot and one takeaway in 14:57 of ice time.
Days later, Saad was returned to Saginaw, where he had 34 goals, 76 points and a team-best plus-35 rating in 44 games. The Pittsburgh native also had six points and a team-best plus-8 rating in six games for the United States at the 2012 World Junior Championship. He returned to Saginaw to lead the team with eight goals and 17 points in 12 OHL playoff games, and capped his season with two games for the Blackhawks in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Saad started the 2012-13 season with the Blackhawks' American Hockey League affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, and had eight goals and 20 points in 31 games. When the lockout was lifted, Saad immediately was recalled by the Blackhawks.
Used at center and on the wing, Saad flourished. He was fourth on the team in goals (10) and points (27), and his plus-17 led all rookies. He averaged 16:27 of ice time per game while playing 46 games and finished third in voting for the 2013 Calder Trophy.
Saad was a lineup fixture in the 2013 playoffs, skating in all 23 games. He had one goal and six assists, with his goal the Blackhawks' first in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins. He also had an assist on Michal Handzus' goal to open the Blackhawks' 6-5 overtime win in Game 4. He averaged 16:23 of ice time per game, including 56 seconds per game shorthanded, a significant amount for a 19-year-old on a team that would go on to win the Stanley Cup.
Saad has continued to raise his play this season. He's tied for third on the team with 15 goals, and he has 31 points and a plus-15 rating in 45 games. And that production has risen while his ice time has remained the same, 16:25 per game entering the Blackhawks' game Wednesday against the New York Rangers.
Kreider quickly has become a favorite of Rangers coach Alain Vigneault -- according to the line combination tool at Dobberhockey.com, Kreider is a fixture at left wing on two of Vigneault's most frequently used line combinations, with Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello, and with Stepan and Rick Nash.
However, Saad would get the vote right now. He started his season with an invitation to USA Hockey's Olympic evaluation camp in August and his play this season has remained at a high level.
The determination Saad showed in making the Blackhawks as an 18-year-old has continued to develop and allowed him to become a consistent part of the top three lines for the defending Stanley Cup champions and a major contributor at both ends of the ice.
Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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