For Greg Gilbert, Brandon Saad’s ascent in the Chicago Blackhawks’ organization isn’t a surprise. The Saginaw Spirit head coach saw what Saad could bring, first-hand, last season.
“He was a man playing against boys,” said Gilbert, who started coaching the Spirit in December of 2011.
It’s one more reason the Man-Child moniker makes sense.
Saad is turning in some stellar work during his rookie season with the Blackhawks, and he deserves Calder Trophy consideration because of it. Gilbert, the reigning OHL Coach of the Year said Saad, the Spirit’s captain last season, deserves it. And Saad’s gotten here after learning a very important lesson.
“One thing that Brandon had to overcome, going back to last season, was that he had to learn that, ‘You’re a man now.’ You have to force your will on other players and teams,” said Gilbert, whose 15-year NHL career included a few seasons with the Blackhawks. “Once he got that confidence, the results are speaking for themselves.”
Saad scored his eighth goal of the season--and fourth goal in his last three games--in the Blackhawks’ 4-3 shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night. But Saad’s contributions can’t be measured in just his goals and 13 assists. His tenacity, ability and propensity to go into the hard areas have earned him a lot of attention. Saad has used his 6-foot-2, 211-pound frame well with all those aspects of his game.
“You can talk about his skill all day, how fearless he is in puck areas when there’s traffic and when guys check him, but he seems to come out with it every time,” captain Jonathan Toews said. “He’s one of those guys who’s determined to make a difference every night. He doesn’t want to just contribute every once in a while. He’s out there creating plays and says, ‘You know what? If no one else will do it, I’ll be the guy.’ You like to have a guy like that with that attitude.”
Gilbert said Saad had to work past the anxiety that the young forward, then 19 years old, understandably had when the Blackhawks called him up for the postseason last April.
“When he was called up at the end of the season, it’s the nerves and all that came into play because he was in the NHL. Now that he’s gotten a better grasp and knows what he has to do,” Gilbert said. “The big difference is playing to make a difference instead of hoping nothing bad happens. When a young guy has that change of mind and mentality, he’s going to be a good player. He had to overcome that hesitancy and that fear of playing at that level.”
Some seasoning in Rockford didn’t hurt. Saad played there during the lockout, and was the AHL’s Player of the Week when he got called up to participate in the Blackhawks’ abbreviated training camp. Like last season, he made the big club right out of camp. Unlike last season, he’s latched on in 2013 and made a lasting impact almost immediately.
“That was a leg up for him, because he was playing when other guys weren’t,” Gilbert said of Saad’s Rockford days. “It was great experience and probably an eye opener. Going from juniors to the pros of any level is a step up, and it was a good proving ground and test for him to see how he had to play. You have to raise your intensity and work ethic that much more. The time he spent down there was very beneficial to him.”
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The fears, apparently, have been overcome. Hence that “fearless” description Toews constantly gives him. Saad plays to make a difference. Perhaps that Rockford experience helped shake a lot of them, because they were absent once he came to Chicago. He’s grown up plenty in a short amount of time.
The Man-Child is more the first part of that nickname than the latter.
“It’s all the hard work he’s put into it that has gotten him to the spot he’s at now,” Gilbert said. “He’s on his own, and he’s having success.”