Brandon Saad in a ‘great spot’ on Blackhawks’ top line

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Marian Hossa didn’t really have a word for it. So standing in front of his locker stall, Hossa grabbed an imaginary hockey stick and animatedly began illustrating one of the things Brandon Saad does so well. Using a reporter as a dumbstruck defenseman, Hossa pantomimed how Saad can execute something of a full-speed crossover dribble on ice — faking to one side of the defender, freezing him, then throwing the puck to the other side and basically jumping over the guy to regain the puck and power past him. 

“Not many players you see [who] can do it in the league,” Hossa said. “And he’s one of those who are able to do it.”

There really isn’t a word for a lot of the things Saad does so well. That’s what makes him a rising star in this league. And it’s why he’s so often compared with Hossa — the consummate two-way, all-around player who can make all the splashy moves, yet who also does all the little things away from the puck that make all the difference.

Lifting sticks and stealing pucks. Working in the corner and coming out with the puck. Skating with strength and balance, impossible to move off the puck. Being in the right place at the right time at both ends of the rink. These Hossa hallmarks are quickly becoming Saad staples. Patrick Kane even called Saad a “mini-Hossa” earlier this season.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that Saad spends most of his shifts alongside Hossa and Jonathan Toews, two of the league’s premier 200-foot players.

“It’s a great spot to be in,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “Those two guys, you get to see what it takes to be a pro, you get to see the preparation that goes into it, the importance of every shift. … I think it’s a great opportunity for him, and I think he’s been real good as we’ve gone along here.”

Saad is playing his best hockey since his revelatory work in the Western Conference final, when he had four goals and five assists with a plus-7 rating in seven games. He has five goals in his past eight games, and has been stellar away from the puck, as well. He’s fourth on the team with 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists) on the season. 

He had a pair of goals Friday in Edmonton, twice crashing the net and putting in rebounds from his linemates on 2-on-1s. That’s the blueprint for the 22-year-old Saad, whom Quenneville has repeatedly said can be a premier power forward in the NHL.

“Go to the net and good things happen,” Saad said. 

Saad has made no secret of his admiration for Hossa’s game, but it’s not really a mentor/mentee kind of relationship. Hossa doesn’t sit down with Saad before and after games and delve deep into the details of the game, breaking down the finer points of defensive positioning and offensive awareness. It’s more of a watch-and-learn kind of thing. When Hossa — who turned 36 on Monday — was a young player, he learned by watching Ottawa Senators teammate Daniel Alfredsson from up close, and Colorado stars Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic from afar. 

Saad has two guys right next to him from which to learn by osmosis.

“It’s obviously a great spot to be in,” Saad said. “I’m playing with two great players every night, and I can learn a lot from them.”

Saad will be a restricted free agent in July, and contract negotiations won’t begin until the season’s over. He’s due a massive raise from his entry-level deal worth $894,167 a year. And even with the salary cap crunch looming, there’s no doubt general manager Stan Bowman will lock in Saad for years to come.

If it were just about points, Saad would be worth plenty. But it’s all the hard-to-quantify little things that make him so valuable.

“He’s getting better and better, at such a young age,” Hossa said. “He’s going to be a dominant player in the league.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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