Blackhawks lose in letting Brandon Saad go

At 4:15 p.m. CT, Blackhawks fans woke up with their heads ringing, their mouths dry and the room spinning. The Stanley Cup hangover had begun.

That’s when those cold hearts on the Blackhawks sent out a news release titled, “Blackhawks Acquire Four From Columbus.”

If I were running things, it would’ve been, “Good Kid, SAAD City” in 80-point type. (Apologies to Kendrick Lamar.)

What were you thinking when Brandon Saad got traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets? Shock? Anger? Did you curse the so-underperforming-it-should-be-in-the-AHL Canadian dollar?

With a salary-cap purge coming, we knew a bunch of Blackhawks were on their way out, and we know general manager Stan Bowman hasn't yet been able to deal Bryan Bickell and Patrick Sharp -- but still, this move was not expected.

I don’t care what kind of hockey expert you fancy yourself, Brandon Saad, the Pittsburgh Man-Child (no relation to the Pittsburgh Kid, Billy Conn), shouldn’t be an ex-Blackhawk at 22 years old. Not after eight goals and three assists in this Stanley Cup playoff run. Not after 52 points (23 goals, 29 assists) in 82 games the past season.

Forget the stats. With two Cups to his name already, Saad’s prime is still years away. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane represent the core of the core of this team, but Saad was standing over their shoulders.

We kept hearing what a priority Saad was for the Blackhawks, so how did this deal get done? Reports had Saad asking for $6.5 million in annual average value. With the Blackhawks' $71.4 million salary cap, optimism was scratched for a hard shot of reality.

"It's a challenge to try to negotiate a contract, and we gave it our best shot," Bowman said in a conference call. "We worked hard at it with Brandon and his agent and weren't able to reach an agreement. And when that became apparent, we turned our focus to trying to improve our team for next season."

Cold world, huh, Stan?

With 2.5 Stanley Cups on his résumé (I give him half-credit for the 2010 Cup), Bowman deserves respect. This move was not one he approached with certainty.

He and his scouts drafted Saad in the second round in 2011 -- a ridiculous coup in retrospect. Saad was in the NHL by the 2012-13 season.

Certainly, Bowman was decisive in acquiring Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, Corey Tropp and a 2016 fourth-round draft pick -- and reacquiring Jeremy Morin. That’s a nice haul, but no one in that trade is as talented, with as much room to get better, as Saad.

I don’t care about the spin. This isn’t a win for the Blackhawks. But now you can see why it’s OK to bend the rules and call three Stanley Cups in six years a dynasty: NHL teams are penalized for being good at what they do.

Managing the NHL’s salary cap isn’t easy, especially when you have Toews and Kane on your roster. Their extensions are eating up significant cap space, as they should.

But losing Saad leaves a particularly bitter taste, and I’m sure Bowman didn’t sleep easily Tuesday night. Hawks fans still have the right to wonder and vent and ask if Bowman could’ve prevented this from happening. You can’t just hope for a hometown discount, especially in this sport.

My colleague Scott Powers offered all the intelligent hockey analysis, including some legit second-guessing.

Me? I just liked watching Saad play. He’s the type of player even hockey neophytes can immediately recognize as a special talent.

Remember his tie-breaking goal in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals? The Hawks finished the series two games later. Remember his scoring in Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference finals?

“Well, I've always said, to me, the best characteristic to his game is not necessarily his flat‑out skill, his skating, all the tangible parts of his game that you can see firsthand,” Toews said of Saad after Game 4 of the finals. “I think when he came into the league, he was always pushing himself every night. He was assuming more responsibility, whether it was scoring goals or playing two‑way hockey.

“I think he just keeps showing that. I think he just assumes that responsibility, and he wants to be one of the best players, he wants to contribute in games. ... Obviously, our team is having a lot of success this postseason. He's a big reason why.”

In other words, Saad is a beast -- and oh, to be a fly near Toews’ fishing boat when he heard this news.

Can the Blackhawks absorb this loss? Sure. They have Toews and Kane and all the rest.

But Saad is special. Could his loss make the difference in winning another Stanley Cup -- or three? We have no idea. We’ll never know. But the Blackhawks are worse without him. Saad is a difference-maker, the type of player who helps lift a team when it counts.

For all those who credit the organization for winning three Cups, in the postseason, in the crucible, it’s about talent coming through when there’s so little margin for error -- when one shot, one bounce, can be the difference between failure and immortality.

Saad, young, tough, talented and fearless, is the kind of player who keeps you in June. He’s the kind of player you will lament losing.

I know. Who’s to say Anisimov and Dano won’t be valuable cogs in the Blackhawks machine?

"He's a player we've been trying to acquire for quite some time," Bowman said of Anisimov. "I've talked a long time about our desire to find a big center man. There's very few of them in the NHL. You just look around the 30 teams. To be able to get a guy in the prime of his career, at 6-foot-4, who can do a little bit of everything, it's someone we've been chasing a long time. We were finally able to acquire him.”

Good spin, Stan. You got the guy you wanted but lost the one every team needs.

But that’s life in the NHL. Pass the Tums.