They called him the Man-Child because of his size, his strength, his poise and his remarkable beard-growing ability. But really, Brandon Saad was just a kid when he found himself thrown onto a line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa in the second game of the 2013 season.
Saad wasn’t even supposed to make the team out of the five-day, post-lockout training camp. Then he was just supposed to be an insurance forward for a season-opening road trip out west. Then all of a sudden he was a top-liner. Alongside a pair of future Hall of Famers, no less.
So Saad did what any rookie would do in that situation: He deferred to his elders.
“I was a young guy coming into the league, and kind of star-struck,” Saad said. “So I just tried to get them the puck as quickly as I could.”
Nearly two years later — hard to believe, but Saad’s still been in the league for less than two years — Saad is back on a line with Toews and Hossa. And he’s all grown up.
“I’m still learning from them, but at the same time, I’m confident in my game and feel I can bring more to the line,” Saad said. “I can help produce now.”
It was a slow and steady climb for Saad to get back to the top line, after falling all the way down to the fourth line earlier in the season, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville never quite satisfied with the promising winger’s play, always feeling he had something more to give. “Consistency” is always the word Quenneville uses when discussing Saad, and he’s finally starting to see it. Off nights and lackluster shifts are rarer, and the points are more frequent.
Through 24 games, Saad has four goals and 11 assists. He has two goals and two assists in the seven games he’s been back on the top line — a unit that’s been snakebitten since combining for four even-strength goals in its first three games, but one that Quenneville remains pleased with. They’re generating chances and controlling play, even if the pucks aren’t going in.
“That line always plays the right way,” Quenneville said. “They draw a lot of the coverage and [top] matchups. That’s what makes you a good team — whether they’re scoring or not, they’re doing the right thing and playing the right way.”
In fact, when Patrick Sharp returns, possibly this weekend against either Montreal or Nashville, he’ll be hard-pressed to bump Saad and regain his spot on the top line.
“He definitely has improved so much over those couple of years,” Hossa said. “Obviously, he’s much more powerful, he’s a great skater, and he’s not afraid to do individual stuff with the puck. He’ll also backcheck. Over those two years, he learned so much and he’s become a really good player in this league.”
That confidence extends off the ice, too.
“When he was a rookie, he was really quiet,” Toews said. “It took a while for us to realize how much personality he really had. He’s a character. He’s a great guy off the ice and you’ve seen that in his game, too, that he can really show when he’s got that confidence how dynamic he can be.”
Toews equated Saad to both former Hawks defenseman Nick Leddy, with his deceptive speed and lateral explosiveness, and Hossa, with his defensive awareness and backchecking ability. It’s a lethal combination when he puts it all together, which he’s finally starting to do with more frequency.
“You’re always trying to be consistent and be at your best,” Saad said. “I mean, you can’t have that every night, but I’ve been feeling better about myself, about the little things, and bringing at least something each night.”