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Brandon Saad belongs back in top-six role for Blackhawks

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Saad could fit with either of Chicago’s core duos and make them better.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Colorado Avalanche
Chicago Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad (20) plays against the Colorado Avalanche
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It may be fair to say Brandon Saad has not been the player the Chicago Blackhawks thought he’d be when they re-acquired him in June 2017. He only had 35 points in 2017-18, including 18 goals, and was anything but a threat on the power play. The guy he was traded for, Artemi Panarin, helped lead the Columbus Blue Jackets to the playoffs and to two wins over the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals.

But the numbers belying Saad have given a different impression - that he’s been more than capable of moving the puck and helping the Blackhawks offensively.

During the 2018-19 season, Saad was one of the best players on the Blackhawks in terms of per-60 production. His 1.73 points per 60 minutes and 1.4 primary points per 60, both at even strength, were both sixth on the Blackhawks’ roster. He had one of the best relative expected goal shares on the team (2.61, seventh on the team) despite the 18th-highest offensive zone start rate and the fourth best quality of competition.

In other words, Saad outperformed his role on the third line. He also had a positive impact on the Blackhawks in both ends of the ice.

The Blackhawks were able to get more shots from the high-danger area with Saad than with Saad off, and also got more opportunities from the royal road, the stretch of ice aligning vertically from the net. Saad helped the Blackhawks get actual scoring chances.

He was also helpful defensively.

The Blackhawks still weren’t great defensively, but they were better. With that said, here’s why Saad should get a look at a better role next season, and his case for joining either the Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat duo or the Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane duo.

DeBrincat and Strome

Saad, DeBrincat and Strome spent a collective 91 seconds together at 5-on-5 this past season. While that’s not enough to make a true judgement on how the line performed as a cohesive whole, Saad spent more time with both of them apart, and they spent a lot of time apart from Saad. Here’s what their stats look like:

Line Combo Metrics - Saad, DeBrincat and Strome

Line Time on Ice Corsi For % Shot Share Goal Share Expected Goal Share High-Danger Share Offensive Faceoff %
Line Time on Ice Corsi For % Shot Share Goal Share Expected Goal Share High-Danger Share Offensive Faceoff %
DeBrincat, Strome, Saad 1:31 100 100 N/A 100 N/A N/A
DeBrincat, Strome 479:52:00 46.88 46.91 55.88 45.05 40.91 57.92
DeBrincat, Saad 32:12:00 56.9 57.58 66.67 40.59 28.57 35.29
Strome, Saad 38:49:00 61.46 55.36 36.36 42.29 30 40

With Saad, both DeBrincat and Strome are able to move the puck better than without him, including when they’re with each other. That’s while starting more often in the defensive zone, which helps explain the high-danger share and expected goal share being lower.

Keep in mind DeBrincat and Strome both had less spectacular defensive impacts than they had in the offensive zone. Adding someone with an ability to play well defensively would help the young duo, and that’s why Saad would be perfect.

DeBrincat also scored two goals at even strength in the brief time he and Saad played together assisted by Saad, and also had two assists. Strome also had an assist with Saad while playing at 5-on-5.

Adding a proven scorer like Saad, who can also help manufacture plays (he has 41 assists in the past two seasons while playing with talent, well, less remarkable at finishing than DeBrincat) could mean that the second line becomes an improved scoring threat. That’s never a bad thing.

Besides, DeBrincat and Strome had negative possession stats with players that weren’t Saad, despite a pretty hefty offensive workload. Adding the player who had the third-best Corsi and fourth-best shot share at even strength in Saad to their line could catapult them to a puck-dominating force.

Toews and Kane

But if you want to talk about who Saad got the most points with, it’s not Artem Anisimov (who got just four primary points in conjunction with Saad at 5-on-5), or DeBrincat or Strome.

It’s Toews, who shared 11 of his primary points this last season with Saad (13 points total). That means Toews was in on 34.21 percent of Saad’s points last season. The guy who was rumored to ask for his old linemate back proved to be beyond capable with him when they played together, which they probably should do more. In addition, Saad assisted on four of Kane’s goals, despite limited playing time together. Kane and Saad shared six points at 5-on-5.

The line makes more sense from a positional standpoint as well. Saad is a natural left wing, which is also the same position DeBrincat plays. Saad would likely move to the right to play with DeBrincat and Strome, but with Toews and Kane, a right wing, no such move has to be made.

In addition, Kane and Toews were also made better by the presence of Saad.

Line Combo Metrics - Saad, Toews and Kane

Line Time on Ice Corsi For % Shot Share Goal Share Expected Goal Share High-Danger Share Offensive Faceoff %
Line Time on Ice Corsi For % Shot Share Goal Share Expected Goal Share High-Danger Share Offensive Faceoff %
Toews, Kane, Saad 118:39:00 53.16 47.48 46.67 49.57 37.5 68.35
Toews, Kane 449:21:00 50.57 48.6 58.7 47.58 45.31 61.97
Toews, Saad 377:43:00 49.8 49.08 50 45.34 43.53 45.62
Kane, Saad 170:19:00 51.71 47.64 56.25 40.92 35.59 76.06

Aside from goal share, which in part can be attributed to luck, it’s pretty clear that Kane and Toews become better with Saad. Toews and Saad at 5-on-5 move the puck very well together, even despite their defensive work load, and Kane and Saad are a legitimate scoring threat. The line was definitely worth a longer look than the 118 minutes they had together.

Again, Saad has shown the capacity to move the puck incredibly well while taking on a hefty defensive workload. On a line with Kane, the defensive element of Saad’s game would be very useful.

Better linemates, better play

Saad has proven to be better than his third-line status last season would indicate. It’s past time he got an extended chance back in the top six, and he would fit with either existing duo and bring something new to them, making them better.

His production is better than his performance last season would lead you to believe, and that’s perhaps because of the talent he was surrounded. With better linemates, perhaps Saad can become the player the Blackhawks traded Panarin for. All the necessary signs are there.

While this conversation could change depending on what the Blackhawks do both at the draft and in free agency, if the roster were to stay relatively the same while adding depth pieces like Dominik Kubalik and a player (or two) from Rockford, Saad is the underlooked forward currently on the Blackhawks roster. Perhaps it’s time that changed.