Brandon Saad’s eyes were probably as big as saucers when Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville told him he was jumping on the top line in the wake of Daniel Carcillo’s knee injury last season.
Think about it for a second: 20 years old, a handful of NHL games to your credit and you’re going to play on Jonathan Toews’ left side. No pressure, kid.
“Definitely a little nervous,” Saad remembered about that moment on Monday. “I had a couple games before that, but seeing an injury, you never know what’s going to happen. I was just excited about it. To get an opportunity, that’s what everyone hopes for. Luckily I got mine.”
The Blackhawks have never shied away from throwing a young player into the fire. Top line? Playing the penalty kill with no prior experience? Replacing a veteran somewhere? Sure, sure and why not. It’s part of the learning process in the most challenging form. But most of the Blackhawks have responded just fine to those daunting tasks.
“Sometimes they earn it, sometimes we like to try things,” Quenneville said. “In most situations, guys proved they deserve that with where they’re at or how they’re playing. Organizationally, young guys have stepped in. You see where Saader is in a short amount of time. Not only do you try things, you find out he belongs here. It’s all part of growing as a team and organization.”
The Blackhawks have done this a few times. Saad played on the top line immediately. Nick Leddy got more responsibility in the wake of Brian Campbell’s trade to Florida a few seasons ago. Marcus Kruger was thrown onto the penalty kill and became darn good at it. Andrew Shaw’s been a wing, then a center, then a wing and on special teams. Brandon Pirri got his first NHL power-play opportunity on Saturday night.
Players appreciate the opportunities.
“Obviously you’re a little nervous. But them throwing you in during big-time situations, that gives a player like me a lot of confidence and know they believe you can capitalize,” Leddy said. “Obviously it’s still a learning experience for me, being so young. You don’t try to replace, you just try to do the best you can.”
“They like to see how you treat to certain situations, and that’s what makes this organization great,” Shaw said. “They pump the tires of the young guys, keep them moving forward.”
They also accelerate a player’s on-ice growth process. Some of these young 20-somethings are already feeling like grizzled veterans.
“I think so, for sure,” Saad said. “Going through what I did last year, obviously with the success I’ve had, it feels like I’ve been here for a long time. I think it helps you become a better player.”
Trial by fire, and at a young age; the Blackhawks have never hesitated to use a young player in big situations. The young guys have grown from them.
“You’re playing against skilled guys, and they put you situations you’ve probably not been in in before,” Leddy said. “You get some experience at a young age, and you learn from that.”