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On the Fast Track

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
At age 2, most children are learning how to run, jump and climb – on solid ground.

Not Brandon Saad.

He was light years ahead of most kids his age by then, seeing as he was already balancing on skate blades 1/8 of an inch wide on a sheet of ice.

About a year and a half later, the Gibsonia, Pa., native (who later moved to Wexford) joined his first organized hockey team in the Pittsburgh developmental system. He hasn’t stopped playing since.

And while he grew up idolizing Penguins legends Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr and, of course, dreamed of someday playing in the NHL, he never lost sight of why he got started in the first place despite his always-hectic hockey schedule – for the love of the game.

That’s what makes the fact that Saad, 18, is projected as a potential first-round pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft – he is listed as No. 19 among North American skaters on NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings and as No. 21 overall on the Red Line Report, an independent scouting service – even more surreal.

“It’s definitely crazy,” Saad said. “We all grew up playing it for fun, but to get to this stage, it’s an awesome experience.”

The 6-foot-2, 206-pound forward recorded 55 points (27G-28A) in 59 games last season with the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).

“He’s just a big, strong, physical, aggressive guy who’s got a terrific shot,” said Kyle Woodlief, chief scout and publisher of the Red Line Report. “He’s got a great release around the slot, he has creative centermen who can get him the puck in scoring territory. He’ll bury a lot of chances.”

His future is bright, but Saad has made a lot of transitions to different teams and leagues to get to where he is now.

After beginning his amateur career with the Butler Valley Dawgs alongside his brother, George – who is two years older than him – the pair moved to the Pittsburgh Amateur Penguins. From there, the brothers split up for a period of time when Brandon went to the Pittsburgh Hornets organization for four years, the area’s elite AAA organization.

That took him through his freshman year, where he reunited with George on the Pine Richland squad that captured a Penguins Cup at Mellon Arena in 2008 while also playing for the Hornets – with Brandon scoring a hat trick in the championship game.

The two brothers then joined the Mahoning Valley (now Youngstown) Phantoms of the North American Hockey League (NAHL) during Brandon’s sophomore year.

“Being able to play with my brother, I think, made (hockey) more fun to stick with it and do something together as brothers,” he said.

The year after that, Saad packed his bags for Michigan to play for the U.S. National Team Development Program of the United States Hockey League (USHL), where he produced a total of 58 points (29G-29A) in 63 games, including six points (3G-3A) in seven games at the World Under-18 Championships, helping the U.S. win gold.

He then deigned to move to yet another team (and league) last season, signing with the Spirit last June, in order to fast track that aforementioned dream of playing in the NHL.

“I just wanted to be a pro as quick as possible,” Saad said. “The OHL produces pros quickly, so I think just knowing that, I chose this route and with the schedule they have, the games they play, they play more games in pro-type systems.”

Woodlief sees Saad as a player who will score goals at the NHL level.

“He’s got so many outstanding attributes,” Woodlief said. “He’s a really big, strong guy who can muscle in the corners and drive the net. And that shot of his is terrific. He’s got a rocket. He’s got really strong wrists. He can snap it off on the fly.”

But while Saad’s path has taken him all over, he’ll never forget where he started. He hopes that Pittsburgh-area hockey continues to grow and that he and his fellow draft prospects – John Gibson (Baldwin), J.T. Miller (Corapolis/E. Palestine, OH), Vince Trocheck (Upper St. Clair) and Barrett Kaib (Upper St. Clair) – can inspire youth players in Western Pennsylvania.

“I think it’s nice that Pittsburgh-area hockey has come along,” Saad said. "There’s a lot of places to play and a lot of organizations to go to throughout Pittsburgh. They’ve come a long way and it’s good to develop here now as a player, obviously, with seeing the talent that’s come out of it.”


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