CHICAGO -- Most teams would be thrilled with two two-way stars like Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews and right wing Marian Hossa on the top line.
Along with Toews and Hossa, the Blackhawks also have 23-year-old Brandon Saad, who’s become a two-way force in his own right. Saad has played left wing with Toews and Hossa most of this season and parts of the past two, and has developed into a near clone of them.
Left Wing - CHI
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 3
SOG: 18 | +/-: -1
Chicago has three forwards on its top line with speed, size, skill and a thirst for playing defense to get the puck back on their sticks.
"When we’re on top of our game, we all have some size out there, protecting the puck and playing in [offensive] zone, getting pucks to the net and making plays down low," Saad said. "That’s our game. We don’t want to get involved in [rush] attacks. We have some skill on our line, too, so we can do that, but with three big bodies we like to play down low."
That’s where they might prefer to play, but they’re effective all over the ice. It’s become a big advantage in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Blackhawks, and Saad’s rapid maturation is a big reason for it.
"I think he’s gotten more consistent in his game," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "I think he’s more of a threat on both sides of the puck, [and] more predictable on both sides of the puck. That consistency comes with age, I guess, with him."
Saad played a role in Chicago’s 2013 Stanley Cup championship, but was moved to the third line in the playoffs after spending nearly all season with Toews and Hossa. He played all 23 games of that postseason, and had one goal, five assists and was minus-1.
He improved his playoff numbers last season, when he had six goals, 10 assists and was plus-10 in the Blackhawks’ run that ended with a 5-4 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final. Chicago has reached the conference final for a third straight season, and Saad could be the X-factor to get them back to the Stanley Cup Final.
He has three goals and is minus-1 through the first two series, but he has found other ways to impact games when his scoring touch isn’t there. In other words, he plays just like Toews and Hossa.
"I think [it’s] confidence and just experience," Saad said. "You’re going to get bigger and stronger if you’re working out every summer, but just playing the game is where you get the best [gains]. Being around this group of guys, learning and getting that experience under your belt definitely helps with confidence out there."
It showed during the regular season.
Saad bounced around the lineup in the beginning of the season but eventually settled into his role on the top line. He played 82 games, set career highs with 23 goals, 29 assists and 52 points, and showed he’s versatile enough to play right wing or left wing.
He’s most comfortable on the left wing, which makes him a perfect fit with Toews and Hossa, who he’s often compared to by size and playing style. Some have even noticed similarities to Al Secord, the left wing who also wore No. 20 for the Blackhawks.
Saad isn’t as physically daunting as Secord, but is capable of taking over a shift and dominating from the left wing like he did.
Saad is steadily gaining confidence in his abilities and the Blackhawks are excited about it in the short and long term. Saad will be a restricted free agent July 1, which means another team could sign him to an expensive offer sheet, but the Blackhawks are expected to try to keep him no matter the cost.
"I think he’s maturing," Quenneville said. "I think he’s accepting more responsibility. In a real positive way, there were no flaws before, [but he’s] just gradually getting more mature as a young player."