-- Brandon Saad
says "awesome" a lot and mentions "hard work" nearly as often.
At times, you can see how wide his eyes are just to be standing inside the Chicago Blackhawks
locker room -- let alone wearing a Hawks uniform with his name on it, answering rapid-fire questions from reporters about his impressive preseason performance.
The 18-year old Saad, Chicago's second round pick (No. 43) in the 2011 Entry Draft, will continue wearing that uniform for at least a little longer. Chicago signed him to a three-year, entry-level contract Tuesday and he'll be on the ice when the Hawks open their season against the Stars on Friday in Dallas.
He's also going to start playing on Chicago's top line, with captain Jonathan Toews
at center and All-Star Patrick Sharp
at right wing. Not too shabby for a player who didn't hear his name called on the first day of the draft, despite some projections saying he would -- he was No. 19 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the draft.
"It's going to be awesome. I've always worked to make the NHL and I wanted to come in here with the right attitude and work hard. I didn't expect to make the team, but it's something nice to have." -- Brandon Saad
"It's going to be awesome," Saad said. "I've always worked to make the NHL and I wanted to come in here with the right attitude and work hard. I didn't expect to make the team, but it's something nice to have."
As a result, he's also got a little bit of history under his belt now. By playing with the Hawks on Friday, Saad will become the first NHL player since Colorado Avalanche
center Ryan O'Reilly
in 2009 to be selected outside the first round and make an NHL opening-night roster in his draft year.
Prior to O'Reilly, the feat hadn't been accomplished since the 2003 draft/2003-04 season, when Patrice Bergeron
(second round, Boston), Dan Fritsche
(second round, Columbus), Lasse Kukkonen
(fifth round, Chicago) and Esa Pirnes
(sixth round, Los Angeles) each did it.
"It's sinking in a little bit," Saad said. "But it's still just … I'm just loving being here and I'm looking forward to Friday."
Among those helping Saad along is Toews.
Like Saad, the 23-year-old Toews made the NHL without stopping for extra development in the minor leagues.
"It's all about finding that confidence inside of you, and obviously he's one of those guys who's shown he can do that," Toews said. "He's got the mind-set to be able to go out there and make plays at any level. He's come in here knowing what he can do and he's showing it right now. That's great for him."
It's not so bad for the Hawks, either. In a lot of ways, Saad is every bit a teenager -- no different than the neighbor kid bopping down the street on a skateboard. Where that changes is on the ice.
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As the Hawks quickly learned, when you put Saad in an NHL setting and surround him with elite talent, a transformation occurs. The nervous teen disappears and a highly-skilled player emerges -- albeit a little rough around the edges.
That’s when you notice Saad’s 6-foot-1, 202-pound frame, because it fits right in with the team's other big bodies. That's when the smooth hands grab your attention as they direct crisp passes right where they need to be, tape to tape. You also notice the zip on his shot and how the puck just seems to follow him around like a lost puppy.
This guy fell to the second round?
It might have had something to do with a painful groin injury he suffered last season playing for the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League. Saad's stats were good enough -- 27 goals, 55 points in 57 games -- but they lagged a little from what some expected.
With a talented draft class, Saad's stock slipped -- even the Hawks took two players in the first round before selecting Saad with the 13th pick of the second round.
"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."
It’s also a chance for Blackhawks Vice President and General Manager Stan Bowman to reflect on how fortunate Chicago was to have Saad slide to them.
"Sometimes those things happen," Bowman said. "We've seen it here. His talent is there and we're the beneficiaries of it. 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."
Saad's new teammates are, too.
"He's played extremely well this training camp and it's well-deserved that he starts the year here," said forward Jamal Mayers
, who at 36 is twice Saad's age. "He's a good kid. He does a lot of things really well and he seems to complement (Toews) really well right now."
Mayers, who backed Saad up with a fight in a preseason game against the Washington Capitals
, also likes the youngster's size.
"He's not a skinny 18-year-old," Mayers said. "He's strong on the puck and he's got a knack for the net. He's obviously a surprise at training camp and it just goes to show … if you play well, you stay."
Saad's stay might be brief, though. The Hawks likely kept him mostly because of a leg injury that's sidelined forward Viktor Stalberg
for a couple weeks. Otherwise, Saad might not have made it.
However, he's a Blackhawk until he's sent out -- and if he continues to impress during regular-season games, there's a chance he stays put. Chicago can keep Saad for up to nine games before deciding whether to send him back to Saginaw or keep him all season.
"For sure, (it's) wait and see," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville
said. "We'll see how he progresses."
Quenneville, however, clearly likes what he's seen from Saad so far. Otherwise, he wouldn't have put him on the top line.
"Brandon had a real nice training camp," Quenneville said. "He's got real good instincts. He's got a good nose for the puck. He sees plays. He makes plays. He protects it and he has patience with it."
The question now is how much patience the Hawks will have with him. This could be a cup of coffee or the start of a long, prosperous career. Only time will tell.
In the meantime, Saad's teammates would like to foster a bond with him away from the ice.
"He's kind of quiet and I think he hasn't broken out yet (in the room)," Hawks forward Bryan Bickell
said. "I know when we get into some team bonding stuff … to get to know him and to actually get to hear him talk will be a big start. (Chemistry) starts off the ice just talking with guys. Then he'll be more comfortable. That's going to take a little time, but hopefully he'll come out from his shell pretty soon."
On the ice, he already has.