There are few better ways to follow up a rookie campaign in which you are named a finalist for the Calder Trophy and are a contributing member to a Stanley Cup championship team.
But Brandon Saad has been doing his best to find a way. And now he's got a trip to Sochi, Russia in February firmly in his sights.
The role of the underdog is a familiar one to the Pittsburgh native in his short professional career. In 2011, the Blackhawks called his name with the 43rd pick of the NHL Entry Draft. That's right, 43rd. Despite having an OHL-best 1.73 points per game average in his final season with the Barrie Colts, Saad tumbled out of the first round and into Chicago's lap.
Following the lockout, Saad was called up immediately from Rockford of the AHL where he had 20 points in 31 games. Despite briefly starting the season skating on the fourth line, Saad was promoted to the first line alongside Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews in short order.
On the most dominant team in recent memory, the then-20-year old "Man-child" continued to impress. His 27 points in 46 games were good for fourth on the team, behind only Hossa, Toews and fellow American and Sochi shoo-in Patrick Kane. Surely that was a byproduct of playing with two of the league's most talented players though, right?
Well, this season he's played with Kane and rookie Brandon Pirri for the majority of his season, and has 10 points in 18 games. But like most candidates for Dan Bylsma's team, it's about more than just point-producing for Saad. His daunting moniker wasn't given in jest. The winger's 6'1", 202-lb frame allows his strength on the puck to rival most forwards in the league, a weapon Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville is happy to have in his arsenal.
“You saw it last year," he said. "One thing about him, he has the ability to make plays on his own, he has some strength on the puck, can play against big, top defensemen. He doesn’t change too much, no matter who he’s playing with, and that’s a good strength to have in his own game.
“Obviously his play recognition with top guys compliments the guys he’s playing with. No matter what line he’s on, we should have a line that’s decent offensively.”
Saad's got one other thing working in his favor. Olympic roster sizes have been expanded from 23 to 25 players. Considering this format, it would be fair to assume the Americans will carry 13 forwards, nine defensemen and three goaltenders with them in Sochi. And while their first two lines will be stacked with high-end talent like Saad's current linemate in Chicago, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better option for those last few forward spots than an all-around talent like Saad.
Take a look for yourself. Here's USA Hockey's preliminary 48-man roster from their camp last summer. Let's assume Backes, Brown, Callahan, Kane, Kesler, Kessel, Parise, Pavelski, Ryan and van Riemsdyk all have spots. That leaves three roster spots for the likes of Stepan, Galchenyuk, Stastny, Pacioretty and Saad, realistically. You tell me which type of player better suits the desires of Nashville Predators general manager David Poile, the man who ultimately has the final say.
Saad claims that while it would be "a dream come true" to represent his country at the Olympics, he remains steadily focused at the task at hand.
“It’s pretty easy to forget about it," Saad said of his chances to make the team. "Right now we’re looking at team success here and playing well for the Blackhawks. Through that you’ll get a better look in making that team. I’m sure a big reason I got invited to (Team USA’s orientation camp) was having success with this team last year. Just playing well here is going to help me out.”
With maturity well beyond his years, he represents USA Hockey like few others. If Saad can maintain the level of play he's been at for the last 12 months, expect to be seeing him dressed in red, white and blue come February.
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