“He was looking for guys before the year and I decided to tag along,” Saad said through a smile on Friday. “It’s been fun.”
I'm not sure how I feel about the mullet with the lines shaved into the side, but I like what I’m seeing on the ice from the 20-year-old Pittsburgh native in his rookie NHL campaign.
Saad has only one goal and five assists in the playoffs, but he has come on over the past two rounds when the games have grown in importance.
“The way that he started his regular season and the way he finished it, is very similar to the way he started his playoffs and how he’s finishing them now,” said TV analyst Ed Olczyk, who works Blackhawks games during the regular season.
“Slow start pointwise, slow start generating a lot, and as the year went on, he became a permanent fixture and that’s how he’s played in the playoffs,” said Olczyk. “A mirror image. Not a lot to show for it early in the playoffs, but a lot to show in important situations as the games have gone on.”
Saad was nominated for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year after putting up 27 points (10 goals, 17 assists) and a plus-17 rating in 46 regular-season games.
“Playing with Jonny and Hos during the year obviously helped out a lot, just getting that experience helped out tremendously,” said Saad.
Head coach Joel Quenneville has had him both on the top line and the third line during the playoffs, and Saad has been mostly on the third unit with Andrew Shaw and Viktor Stalberg of late. For the coach to have that kind of trust in a rookie to play both on the top line or the third line is not something you see every day in this league.
“You don’t,” Mark Kelley, the director of amateur scouting for the Hawks, told ESPN.com Friday. “But he’s a very smart player. He has great character. He’s a well-grounded kid. He plays within the whole team concept. He’s smart enough when the coach gives him a role he can embrace it, whether that’s up on a line with Toews and Hossa or down on a line with Shaw and Stalberg.”
To be able to comfortably fit on both the top line and a checking line as a rookie player takes high hockey IQ, agreed Olczyk.
“You have to be a smart player to be able to do it,” said Olczyk. “A lot of people think anybody can play with Toews and Kane or Hossa and guys like that, but it’s not the case. You have to have a lot of hockey sense and understand how to play with those guys. He just has that ability. He’s a real bright kid. His hockey ability allows him to be flexible.”
Kelley first saw Saad as a prospect during the 2009-10 season when Saad played for the U.S. national under-18 development team. He was immediately taken.
“He was a dominant player on that team,” said Kelley. “At that point, going from his underage year to this draft year, we were as high on him as almost anyone aside from the top few guys in that draft.”
Kelley said Saad played hurt for a while during the 2010-11 season, which likely hurt his draft stock a little and allowed the Hawks to get him in the second round in 2011 (43rd overall), which already looks like a steal.
“He was far from being 43rd on our list, I can tell you,” said Kelley. “The fact that he was there at 43rd, we were incredibly excited.”
Saad’s rapid development is something to behold. He went from the Ontario Hockey League last season, to 31 AHL games with Rockford this season during the lockout, to a full-timer with the Hawks right from the start of the shortened NHL season, to a key player in the Stanley Cup finals.
“He’s developed unbelievably,” said Saad's current linemate, Shaw. “He’s a great player now. He was great coming in but he ironed out some kinks. He’s done a heck of a job. It’s great having him on my line. It’s nice having him as a roommate on the road, too. He’s a great kid.”
Just don’t give him the remote control.
“He’s pretty bad at flipping through the channels, he channel surfs too much,” laughed Shaw. “Sometimes I have to yell at him so he stops and we can just watch something. But we agree on a lot of things, we’re great roommates.”
Saad admits he’s had the odd moment where he’s had to pinch himself to make sure this was all really happening, like when the United Center rocked during the anthem for the opening of the Cup finals.
“The anthem is always crazy here,” said Saad. “There have been lots of crazy moments in these playoffs. Battling back against Detroit as an example. In general it’s been a whirlwind.”
At this point, he hardly feel like a rookie anymore. He’s played a lot of hockey this year.
“The year’s been quick,” said Saad. “But with the experience I’ve had, I feel pretty good out there. I don’t feel like a rookie anymore. Can’t use that as an excuse. I have to contribute and play well. But it’s been a great ride.”