Saad responded after late benching
|Photo by Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks|
CHICAGO -- Joel Quenneville wasn't going to let it drag on for another minute.
After watching 21-year old Chicago Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad steadily spiral downward through the second half of the regular season, the coach of the NHL's defending champion addressed it with four games left. Quenneville, who coached the Blackhawks to Stanley Cup titles twice in four seasons, handled it the same way he has with most players in similar circumstances.
He benched Saad on March 6 for a big game against the St. Louis Blues at United Center, sending an unmistakable message to the player. It didn't matter that top forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were out with injuries.
Saad sat, and the message was received.
"There are elements and there's a process to get to the point where you don’t play," Quenneville said a couple days after Chicago beat St. Louis, 4-2. "It's not like it was just a rash decision."
It was the opposite. It was a premeditated decision, like many others Quenneville has made during his coaching career. His reason for benching Saad was easy to understand: Saad is too valuable to be playing below capacity.
If Chicago hopes to defend its crown, Saad needs to be a contributing factor, joining the more established core-group talent. Letting him fade away for the remainder of the season and 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs wasn't an option.
"He's a big part of our team," Quenneville said. "He gives us a lot of intangibles that he brings. He brings some skill to our lineup, some speed, he's dangerous off the rush, heavy in the puck area and I think [he adds] that element you can use him on both sides of the ice and play him with top players."
In a brief NHL career, spanning parts of three seasons, Saad has flashed similarities to veteran Marian Hossa, an elite two-way forward who does a multitude of good things for the Blackhawks.
Saad played opposite Hossa on Chicago's top line for all but one game of the 2012-13 regular season, with Toews at center, but this season the second-year player bounced around the top three lines.
He's played on each wing and even got a brief look at center of the second line in training camp, showing the versatility Quenneville loves to have at his disposal. When at his best, it's easy to see why Saad is so valuable.
Like Hossa, he overpowers opponents with strong skating and sees things developing like a top-notch playmaker. Another Hossa-like trait is Saad's ability to hound the puck in the defensive zone. He also logs time on special teams.
"He's so powerful in stride and he can really create a lot of separation through the neutral zone with that speed," Blackhawks forward Ben Smith said. "Overall, he's just a smart hockey player. He's mature. He plays all aspects of the game well, he's good defensively, he can score, he's a playmaker ... but for him, the biggest thing is that skating ability. When he's really going, he's buzzing up and down the ice."
When he's not, the buzz is non-existent. It was noticeable when Saad's consistency faltered toward the end of the regular season, with Toews and Kane sidelined. That's when Quenneville decided to act.
"You kind of take it as it comes," Saad said of his one-game benching. "I mean, we had a meeting and talked about it. It's a wake-up call, really, a reality check. You have been playing well, but you can always get better."
Saad finished the season with solid numbers. He scored 19 goals and had 45 points and a plus-23 rating. The decline began after a solid effort on Jan. 2, a 3-2 overtime loss at the New York Islanders.
He struggled heading into the break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics and that funk continued when play resumed. He also missed three games with an upper-body injury that appeared to throw him off upon returning.
"A couple games out, maybe you lose timing and things like that, but I think the biggest thing is being competitive and bringing that every night," Saad said. "I think as a young guy it's something that [Quenneville] teaches well and that's why young players have success here, because he expects the most out of them and for them to play well."
It's a lesson which began in the playoffs a year ago, when Saad scored one goal and had five assists with a minus-1 rating in 23 games as a rookie. After scoring 10 goals and 27 points with a plus-17 rating in 46 games of the regular season, those smaller postseason numbers raised some eyebrows.
Saad was quickly bumped from his left wing spot on the top line in the second round against the Detroit Red Wings. He flip-flopped to the third line, with power forward Bryan Bickell taking his spot next to Toews.
Looking back, it's an experience Saad and the Blackhawks would like to see pay dividends now.
"Last year's playoffs and going through it, it definitely [was] an experience," Saad said. "You can hear as much as you want about [playoff hockey], but until you go through it, you feel much more comfortable the second time around. I'm looking forward to finishing strong and getting into the playoffs."
One area Saad hopes to improve, in short order, is his shooting.
It's not so much the actual shot, which is heavy and effective, as it is pulling the trigger more often. Without Toews and Kane, the Blackhawks reverted to a simpler offensive strategy to score goals. They fired a lot of rubber at the net and crashed hard for rebounds.
Saad's shot is hard enough that he can create a number of scrambles by firing the puck more. Finding that balance between shot and pass is the hard part.
"I've had opportunities to shoot the puck and sometimes you pass it up," Saad said. "Especially in these [playoff]-types of games, any opportunity you get to shoot, you want to shoot and try to get the lead. Even if we don't score, it usually creates chaos there. You want to look to get chances and then, obviously bury them."
The Blackhawks are confident that will happen for him before their season ends. They've seen the talent firsthand for too long, in practices and games, for them to lose confidence in one of their most dynamic players.
"I think it was a shock to everyone when he wasn't playing [against the Blues]," Smith said. "He's only 21, but you think he's 30. He's a mature guy. I think he handled it very well. Just talking to him afterward, he was ready to get back to work and bring another level that he has. We've seen what he can bring to the table and he'll step up for sure."