Saad determined to get his game -- and the Blackhawks -- back on track

 
 
Updated 9/18/2018 6:14 PM
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  • The Blackhawks' Brandon Saad skates with Jonathan Toews against Arizona in a game last year.

    The Blackhawks' Brandon Saad skates with Jonathan Toews against Arizona in a game last year. Associated Press

  • Brandon Saad is greeted by fans before last season's home opener at the United Center. He started the season scoring six goals in six games before his scoring tailed off.

    Brandon Saad is greeted by fans before last season's home opener at the United Center. He started the season scoring six goals in six games before his scoring tailed off. Daily Herald File Photo

  • Left wing Brandon Saad celebrates a short-handed goal in the 2015 Western Conference Finals at the United Center.

    Left wing Brandon Saad celebrates a short-handed goal in the 2015 Western Conference Finals at the United Center. Daily Herald File Photo

When the Blackhawks traded Artemi Panarin to reacquire Brandon Saad June 23, 2017, many pundits -- myself included -- thought GM Stan Bowman pulled a fast one on Columbus.

• After all, Saad had two won Stanley Cups.

• His eye-popping breakaway speed in the 2015 playoffs turned out to be a game-changer on many a night.

• He's a tough two-way player in the mold of Marian Hossa.

• And of course, his contract runs two years longer than Panarin's.

Then came Saad's sensational start to last season.

A hat trick in a 10-1 season-opening win. Six goals in the first six games. The overtime game-winner Nov. 11 in Carolina.

All seemed right in the Blackhawks' world.

But then the bottom fell out, and Saad finished with just 18 goals, 17 assists and a 7.6 shooting percentage -- career lows over an 82-game season -- and the Hawks finished dead last in the Central Division.

Five months later, Saad is looking forward to turning the page.

"Last year showed that we kind of dropped the ball," Saad said. "I don't think any of us take that lightly. None of us like missing the playoffs and watching on TV. We've just got to bring (our best) and have that competitive drive this year."

A rebound season from Saad is one of the biggest keys to a rebound season for the Hawks. This is a young man who wowed fans, teammates, coaches and analysts during deep playoff runs in 2014 and '15. His speed and tenacity were on display on a nightly basis and it seemed a superstar career was on the horizon.

But two weeks after the Hawks won that Cup over Tampa Bay, Saad was unceremoniously traded to Columbus -- the NHL equivalent of Siberia -- and found himself playing for an altogether different coach in John Tortorella.

And to say there was friction would be quite an understatement.

The first example came when Tortorella admitted he "screwed up" when handling Saad early on.

"I think I held him back in where he wasn't killing penalties," Tortorella told the Columbus Dispatch in February 2016. "You know what he is as a player -- two-time Stanley Cup-winner -- but I still think he has a lot to learn about the game, and I lost him.

"When he spends two minutes on the bench and he doesn't kill a penalty, and I don't come back with him another shift after that because I'm trying to get my lines back together, there he is sitting on the bench for probably three minutes. It may not seem like a lot, but for a player that's an eternity."

Then during Columbus' first-round series against Pittsburgh in 2017, Saad was benched for Game 1's final 14:17 after committing a turnover. Tortorella was seen screaming at Saad on the bench.

Saad did score 55 goals in Columbus, but those weren't the easiest two seasons for the Pittsburgh native.

"Some nights it was good and some nights you never know what to expect -- like being benched in the third period when I didn't think I had a bad game to start the playoffs," Saad said. "My first season we lost eight in a row and you get a new coach (in Tortorella).

"So it (was) a whole lot of new things for me. That was a bit of an adjustment, still being pretty young at the time. ... But those moments only make you stronger as a player."

The question now is -- after a disappointing campaign with the Hawks -- can this 6-foot-1, 205-pound specimen right the ship and go back to being the player we all thought he would be just three years ago?

He says yes, insisting that his summer -- spent mostly in Chicago -- "went really well." Coach Joel Quenneville is certainly giving Saad every chance to succeed, putting him on a line with Patrick Kane and Nick Schmaltz during the first week of training camp.

"Even the few days we've had, it's been fun with the amount of skill and speed they bring," Saad said. "They're pretty outstanding players, so to be paired with them is exciting."

As for feeling the pressure of producing like a star? Here's what Saad had to say to that:

"You know what -- I just think I put pressure on myself in being a professional athlete and wanting to come to work every day and lead that way. You can look at it any way -- being a star -- whatever you want to call it.

"But for me, it's just coming in and giving my best every day. Then those things are going to fall into place because I have confidence in my capability of being a top player in this league. That's just something I've just got to refocus (on) and bring that every day."

One thing's for sure: This Hawks team -- one not exactly loaded with 20-goal scorers -- certainly needs that.

"He did some good things (last season)," Quenneville said. "I just think there's more to his complete game, whether he's having the puck more or his shot's better, he uses his speed in the right way, be better defensively.

"Just his overall game -- if he elevates it just a little bit -- I mean he could add so much to our team and to his line. … The upside for him this year could be huge."

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