Brandon Saad makes Blue Jackets force in East

It goes without saying that playing with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews the past couple of seasons has provided an exponential boost to Brandon Saad's evolution.

And sure, the fact the speedy, skilled 22-year-old was shockingly dealt Monday from the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to the Columbus Blue Jackets sets up the possibility that we’ll find out Saad was more a product of his surroundings than his raw skill.

But we don’t think so.

Saad, plain and simple, regardless of who is lining up alongside him, whether it’s in Illinois or Ohio, is the real deal.

Saad was among the last players considered by the U.S. Olympic selection group in forming the 2014 team for the Sochi Olympics. His range of skills, his understanding of the game and his maturity are that impressive.

He has two Stanley Cup rings to his credit and has already played in 67 postseason games. This past spring he played top-six minutes, moving up the Chicago lineup ahead of players like Patrick Sharp and Antoine Vermette. He scored eight times, two of which proved to be game winners.

And did we mention that he’s just 22 years old?

That fact was not lost on Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen, who has quietly and slowly built a team with the potential to very quickly become an Eastern Conference force -- and not just for a little while.

"A winner," Kekalainen told reporters after the trade was consummated on Monday.

"We want winners here. He’s got all the right tools; he’s got speed, he’s got size, he’s got strength. He brings a proven winner to our group."

Kekalainen is already imagining Saad playing with top center Ryan Johansen, also 22.

Factor in another possible linemate in Boone Jenner, 22; captain Nick Foligno, 27; Cam Atkinson, 26; hard-nosed veteran Scott Hartnell; plus a defense corps that includes Ryan Murray, 21; and veteran Jack Johnson, 28; and former Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky; and this is a team built for both the short and long haul.

Saad, a few weeks ago seen as untouchable in Chicago, now becomes a foundation piece in Columbus. With the New York Rangers in a bit of a state of flux and the Pittsburgh Penguins also in transition, the Blue Jackets are no longer just cannon fodder (sorry, couldn’t resist the reference to their replica Civil War era cannon signaling goals in Columbus) in the Metropolitan Division.

That the deal unfolded as it did, without warning, is an illustration of the high-pressure juggling act all NHL GMs face, but especially those who command elite teams.

We’ve been talking for weeks about the work ahead of Chicago GM Stan Bowman in managing the salary cap so he could retain pieces like Saad.

But when it came down to it, with word of a potential offer sheet being prepared (Kekalainen said Columbus was not planning such an action) and with no real middle ground in negotiating with Saad, Bowman acted pre-emptively to make a deal to bring back top assets to help the Blackhawks in the near future and down the road.

Chicago got back Artem Anisimov; Jeremy Morin, a former Blackhawk; talented prospect Mark Dano, who might be the second-most talented player in this deal; Corey Tropp; and a fourth round pick, while Columbus got defenseman Michael Paliotta and center Alex Broadhurst in addition to Saad.

Bowman told reporters that they were never really close to a deal with Saad, who is rumored to be seeking in excess of $6 million annually on a long-term deal.

With contract extensions to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews -- each worth $10.5 million per season -- set to kick in this fall, this is life for the defending Stanley Cup champions. Bowman had to deal a player they did not want to deal so they could remain competitive moving forward.

Who knows whether this means Patrick Sharp stays or not (Bowman couldn’t say when asked directly) or Bryan Bickell or Kris Versteeg.

What is unassailable is that the best player in this big hockey deal is now a Columbus Blue Jacket, and that fact alone makes the Blue Jackets a much, much better team than they were 24 hours ago. And while Columbus still needs to address its defensive depth, folks around the Eastern Conference should be more than a little nervous.

Already Kekalainen and his staff were at work on a contract extension for Saad. As for an offer sheet, the Blue Jackets made it clear they would match anything that came down the pipe. That’s the nice thing about being an emerging team; you can make those kinds of statements.

At some point, Kekalainen noted, the same problems that are bedeviling Stan Bowman under the salary cap may bedevil the Blue Jackets if their young players continue to evolve the way they believe they could or should.

Given the alternative, it’s a nice problem to have and a problem that becomes a little closer to being a reality in Columbus with Monday’s addition of Brandon Saad.