NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Two days before making his debut as an All-Star representing the Columbus Blue Jackets, Brandon Saad looked back fondly on his time with the Chicago Blackhawks. The 23-year old winger won two Stanley Cups in Chicago prior to being traded to Columbus last June to keep Chicago under the salary cap.
"It meant a lot to go to an organization like that and get to play there," Saad said. "With [Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa] there, not just being around them but getting to play on their same line, learning from them everyday. They're guys that have done it all. So it's pretty special, and it's been huge for my career."
Saad had 126 points (52 goals and 74 assists) in 206 regular season games with Chicago from 2012-15. He was a finalist for the Calder Trophy during his rookie season in 2013 after putting up 27 points in 46 games in the lockout-shortened season.
During his time in Chicago, Saad spent a lot time flanking Toews and Hossa. He credited them for a lot of his success in transitioning to the league. "To be a young guy and be around those type of players that teach you the right habits, and how to conduct yourself on and off the ice, it's been huge for my career. It's something I'm still learning, but those are two special guys right there."
And the Stanley Cups? "Obviously the winning helps," he laughed.
Saad's two-way style of play made him a great fit next to Toews and Hossa, two of the game's best defensive forwards. Saad said playing alongside the duo as a young player really helped his development and he learned a lot from Hossa specifically about how to thrive on the wing.
"Being around him, the way he plays both ends of the ice ... he's one of those guys you can see he can do it all," Saad said. "He's got the size and the strength and the speed. It's really amazing. Guys who play with him, I know they really appreciate the things he does. There's not much you can say bad about him."
Everything Saad accomplished in Chicago allowed him to land a six-year, $36 million deal with the Blue Jackets following the trade. That's a huge payout for a restricted free agent and shows the respect he commands around the league. But it's clear that the deal, which came after Saad and the Hawks couldn't come to terms due to the team's lack of cap space, split apart a strong relationship.
The Blackhawks have missed Saad on their first line. In his absence, they haven't quite been able to find a two-way player of Saad's caliber to fit with Toews and Hossa. Some of the options they've tried in that spot have found success -- Teuvo Teravainen and Andrew Shaw have thrived at times -- but it's clear that Saad's departure has had a big impact on the team.
"Absolutely we miss him," Patrick Kane said Friday. "Saader's a great guy. He's someone that brought some comedy to the room, and he's also a great hockey player, so of course you're gonna miss him." Kane noted the chemistry Toews and Hossa had built with Saad and said they've struggled to find that with someone new this season.
However, both sides have still had success this season. The Blackhawks sit atop the Central Division and are second in the NHL in points at the All-Star Break. One of the players the team received in the trade, center Artem Anisimov, has had a breakout season as the No. 2 center. Saad leads Columbus with 35 points (19 goals, 16 assists) in 50 games this year, although the Blue Jackets are sitting near the bottom of the standings.
Saad said the change of team style from Joel Quennville to Todd Richards and then John Tortorella has created a learning curve, but he's adjusting well.
"It's been a whirlwind really. Playing with Q there for a few years, I learned a lot," Saad said. "Playing with a new team, a new coach, it's been all different. With Torts, he's a good coach. He demands a lot out of his players. It's something that you don't see from the outside, but how loyal he is to his players and how much he cares about his players, he's a lot of fun to play for."
This will be Saad's first All-Star appearance of his career. He will be participating in the NHL Breakaway competition at the Skills Competition on Saturday night after winning the online fan vote, which probably saw fair amount of Hawks fans supporting him. He also will participate in the Fastest Skater competition.
The Skills Competition is on Saturday night at 7 p.m. CT. The All-Star Game is Sunday at 4 p.m. CT.
Adam Hess is a staff writer at Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter at @FeathersInDaHat.