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Brandon Saad: Refine and refocus

by Brett Ballantini / Chicago Blackhawks

When the Blackhawks returned Brandon Saad to his junior team in the Ontario Hockey League, the Saginaw Spirit, two games into the 2011-12 season, the rookie admitted the feeling was “bittersweet” after breaking camp as a surprise first-liner with the Stanley Cup-aspiring Chicago Blackhawks.

But Blackhawks Head Coach Joel Quenneville and Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman — the former impressed with the teenager’s feel for the game mere months after the latter drafted him — didn’t let the youngster leave without issuing him a challenge.

“They pulled me in after practice and said, ‘Don’t put your head down; you made it this far. Keep working and improving and you have a bright future,’” Saad said.

“I told Brandon how impressed with him I was and how proud he should be to have made an impact on the Blackhawks so quickly,” Bowman said. “And I told him that, as hard as it is, you need to focus and go back to Saginaw and really dominate that league, because you belong in the National Hockey League.”

Early draft prognostications rated Saad as a sure first-rounder in 2011, perhaps even a top 10 choice. A groin injury stalled his production and hurt his draft status, but Saad’s draft-day disappointment was the Blackhawks’ triumph. Bowman and company are confident they got four first-rounders in forwards Mark McNeill (18th overall) and Phillip Danault (26th), plus defenseman Adam Clendening (36th) and Saad (43rd).

“The first half of [2010-11], that’s the player he really is,” Bowman said. “[His slump] was our benefit from that standpoint. We did a lot of research on him. We knew what kind of character he had and that he wasn’t making excuses for himself. He fought through those injuries. He was very disappointed not to be drafted sooner, but, instead of feeling sorry for himself, he took it as a challenge to have a good rookie camp and carry it over to earn a spot on our team.”

“The draft is the draft,” Saad said, “but once you get on the ice it’s a clean slate, and you have to prove yourself to the team. There was a lot of great talent picked, but to be able to hang on down to the wire [in training camp] and play a couple of games in the NHL, that was definitely an exciting time for me.

“It was a privilege to be up there,” Saad explained. “I just wanted to work hard every day and try to get better, prove myself and make the team.”

It’s always tough to get sent back, but you can’t dwell on it too much or be down in the dumps and have a slow start here. I’d seen NHL players work hard every day, on and off the ice. So coming back here, I just wanted to bring that same work ethic, everything I learned in Chicago, and try to add it to my game. - Brandon Saad
So far, Bowman and his staff seem to be right in identifying what type of player Saad really is. His impact in the OHL was felt as soon as he returned to Saginaw, and in a big way. Just three games in with the Spirit, he pillaged the Brampton Battalion for four goals and an assist in a 5-2 win. At the NHL level, there have been just 141 four-goal games in the past quarter-century, averaging out to around six times per season. While that frequency increases at the junior level, it hardly reduces the amazing feat, which tied a Spirit record, especially for a player just getting his Saginaw skates under him. Saad’s route to the hat trick — which he’d sewn up just past the halfway mark of the game — grew in difficulty with each goal: first a power-play tally, then a goal at even strength, and finally a shortie to complete the trifecta before adding a fourth in the third period.

In his first five games with Saginaw, the winger hit for eight goals and five assists. At the end of October, Saad had accumulated a robust 18 points, denting the scoresheet at least once in each of his eight appearances.

For Saad, who notched his four-pack still days shy of his 19th birthday, success started by readjusting his focus.

“It was fun to be a part of [the Blackhawks], but when I’m in Saginaw, I’m just focused on my team here,” Saad said. “It’s always tough to get sent back, but you can’t dwell on it too much or be down in the dumps and have a slow start here. I’d seen [NHL players] work hard every day, on and off the ice. So coming back here, I just wanted to bring that same work ethic, everything I learned in Chicago, and try to add it to my game.”

Saad’s incendiary start in Saginaw earned him Canadian Hockey League Player of the Week honors for the week of Oct. 17-23, heralding his six goals and 10 points in a trio of Spirit wins.
But the path to the NHL is never easy, and Saad encountered another roadblock soon after. A slash on the hand resulted in a broken bone, sidelining him for all of November and putting his Team USA appearance at the 2012 World Junior Championships in jeopardy. The winger healed up in the nick of time and headed northwest to join his teammates in Edmonton with the same conviction he showed after the draft.

Saad got off to a brisk start with Team USA, spearheading a 7-3 exhibition win against Switzerland with a five-point game (2G, 3A). But in the group stages, the team dropped three of four. Though the Americans bounced back to win the relegation round, a seventh-place overall finish in the tournament was disappointing for a team that captured bronze the previous year.

“Every year you know it’s going to be difficult,” Saad said. “We played some strong teams. Some bounces didn’t go our way, and it was over before we knew it.”

Despite being able to claim NHL and international experience, Saad dismisses the notion that his OHL teammates and opponents view him any differently.

“I had a lot of Spirit teammates go to training camp this year. Not everybody made it as far as I did, but they’re familiar with the experience. We’ve chit-chatted about my time in Chicago, but we’re glad to all be together here.

“Opponents have some different respect for me now,” Saad acknowledged. “But at the same time, we’re playing hockey and everyone’s trying to win out there.”

Saad blistered through his sophomore season in Saginaw at a pace of 1.73 points per game, ranking first in the OHL through the end of the regular season. Saad’s +35 plus/minus rating also paced the Spirit, and his overall level of play led to Head Coach Greg Gilbert appointing him team captain on Jan. 17.

Saad’s attitude and approach are some of the characteristics that drew Blackhawks scouts to him initially. Saad’s breakout showing at Prospect Camp in July and continued success once the veterans skated into the United Center in September merely cemented the inclinations the club already had.

“Everyone who plays with Brandon looks good, and that speaks for itself,” said Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Kelley. “He makes his teammates look better, whether it’s making a pass or being in the right place to get the pass, and when he gets it he knows how to put it into the net.”

Director of Player Personnel Norm Maciver further focuses Kelley’s snapshot: “He just thinks like very good NHL players do, and hockey sense is something you can’t teach but you’ll always have,” Maciver said.

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.”

It will be no surprise if Saad and his hockey sense are skating for the Blackhawks in the not-too-distant future. While Saad is focused on providing leadership and delivering wins to Saginaw now, donning the Indian Head sweater is something he uses as motivation going forward.

“It was a lofty goal to make it, but I had a great time and learned a lot,” Saad said. “I was a long shot to make the Blackhawks at my age, especially for how good the Blackhawks are. But you always have an open mind and say, ‘Wherever I end up, I want to be a hockey player.’ You just take all the experiences you have and incorporate them into your game.”
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