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Blackhawks need Brandon Saad to reach another level in quest for playoff berth

Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad (20) has 13 goals and 23 points in 50 games this season. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

VANCOUVER, B.C. — In the awkward stages of the Blackhawks’ difficult transition — trying to quickly nurture an influx of young players as the vaunted core ages — Brandon Saad is the link to both worlds. As a two-time Stanley Cup winner, he is an established part of the vaunted core. At 25, he is a huge part of the youth the Hawks hope will reinvigorate the franchise and sustain a run of Cup contention.

It remains to be seen how big of a step back the Hawks might have to take to move forward again. But like teams such as the Bruins and Kings, the kids are going to have to carry a big part of the load. It is possible that Jonathan Toews will re-emerge as a consistent offensive force. And maybe Duncan Keith will find the Fountain of Youth. But the next Hawks’ surge will happen if players such as Nick Schmaltz, Alex DeBrincat, Ryan Hartman, Vinnie Hinostroza, Anthony Duclair, Jan Rutta and Gustav Forsling reach another level.

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Saad is at the head of that next-generation group. Despite his credentials — 31 goals with the Blue Jackets in 2015-16; 23 goals at 22 with the Hawks in 2013-14 — he needs to become more than a complementary player. That’s why his return to Chicago has been, at least statistically, a disappointment.

Saad has 13 goals and 23 points with a plus-6 differential in 50 games. After a hot start, seven points in the first four games, he has just 16 points in his last 46 games.

And going into Thursday night’s game against the Canucks, Saad had not scored a point in nine consecutive games, a career-long drought. When Saad went eight consecutive games without scoring in 2013, he was 20 years old. It was the first eight games of his first full season in the NHL and the Hawks didn’t need him. They went 6-0-2 to start the season.

Now they do need him. The Hawks are 4-4-1 in Saad’s current drought. Heading into Thursday night’s game, the Hawks were 11-2-3
this season when Saad scores a point and 13-17-4 when he doesn’t.

Saad’s impressive possession numbers make the drought even more mystifying. According to naturalhattrick.com, Saad was ranked fifth in the NHL in 5-on-5 Corsi percentage (58.2). By most definitions of that analytic, he is playing well. But he is paid to finish, and that’s a missing element right now.

Not surprisingly, Saad is unfazed by the drought. “I think [the key to solving it] is just staying loose,” he said. “When you go through times like this, sometimes you tighten up and you tend to overthink things.

“You’re here for a reason. Just let the game flow and have fun. Usually when you’re having fun, you’re working hard and that’s when you’re at your best.”

Skating with Schmaltz and Patrick Kane on the second line, Saad isn’t likely to have the puck as much. He’s going to have to break this slump the old-fashioned way.

“Saad’s kind of like our team,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “If we get to the net, around the net and get some greasier goals, that can help [buoy] your team. If you’re not scoring, find a way to get there and you might get some ugly goals.

“He’s got some speed and some skill. But I still think you want to have those second and third opportunities. Those are the kind that can enhance your chances by hanging around there. And I think you’ve got to be willing to get there.”

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Email: mpotash@suntimes.com