Patrick Sharp raised his arms after connecting in an end-of-practice shootout drill at the University of Notre Dame. The season hasn’t started yet but the Blackhawks forward is already having a ball.
“I think you’ve been around long enough to know that when I’m acting like an idiot and having fun, that’s when I play my best. When I’m overthinking things and analyzing everything I don’t play good hockey. So that’s first and foremost, being mentally clear and happy and having fun,” Sharp said following Monday’s practice. “You want to be in a good place and I’m definitely there. I’m happy, smiling every day.”
Part of Sharp being in a happy place is being back with the Blackhawks. He had a lot of offers this offseason but Chicago was, “the No. 1 choice by far.” But it’s also about coming back after one of his most trying years on and off the ice and continuing a career that, when he underwent hip surgery last March, he wasn’t sure he’d have. So far, camp has been good. Sharp was once again one of the Blackhawks’ top fitness test finishers – “he looks like a freak of nature as far as working out and being in as good a shape as he is,” Patrick Kane said. So outside of the early aches and pains of camp, Sharp’s feeling good.
“Those first couple of days beat everybody up, starting with the fitness testing and then jumping right into the games. But the surgery is behind me now, I think. I think I’m over it and moving well and adjusting being back in Chicago,” he said. “There’s still a small transition when you switch teams but coming back to Chicago was definitely easier for me than leaving.”
Sharp’s first season in Dallas was good, especially with the Stars winning the West. But last year was difficult: the injury-riddled Stars had a disappointing campaign and Sharp struggled with concussion symptoms for a good part of the season. Also weighing heavily on Sharp was when his dad Ian, who was diagnosed with leukemia several years ago, was hospitalized when the disease worsened.
“I knew my dad was going through that in the hospital for six months and I wanted to play that much better to give him something to watch and maybe I put a little too much pressure on myself and got a little too upset when things didn’t go our way,” Sharp said. “There is some perspective there and it’s a lesson.”
Sharp was determined to come back following his hip surgery but the process was slow and he had to be patient. With an uncertain future, that wasn’t easy.
“It was just learning to bend at the waist again, learning to bend at the knees, getting that hip to hinge down and then graduating to things like walking, jogging and jumping and all that stuff. Nothing overly challenging. But the toughest part was just the day-to-day grind of staying with it, not knowing what the future would hold for my career,” he said. “But thankfully I’m over that.”
His health no longer a question, one of the few that remains is where Sharp fits into the Blackhawks’ lineup. He could end up on the second line; coach Joel Quenneville put him there with Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane in Sunday’s practice. He could also be on the third line, where he’s played with Artem Anisimov and Ryan Hartman; Sharp set up Anisimov’s goal in the Blackhawks’ loss to Columbus on Saturday night. Sharp said working with Anisimov has been easy.
“Sometimes when you get a new line or player you haven’t played with before it takes a few shifts or games to figure out how you’re going to play together. He’s just a complete player and he makes the game easy out there for his wingers. He allows me to do things I like to do on the ice,” Sharp said. “I watched him play the last two years on that great line with [Artemi] Panarin and Kane, so I feel like I know his tendencies and where he likes to camp out and how he likes to play. A guy like that, anybody can play with him.”
Sharp is healthy again. Even better, his father is feeling good again, too – “he’s golfing again and has the nicest yard in Canada,” Sharp said, adding that his dad is thrilled he’s back in Chicago, too. Sharp knows he’s been through a lot of grueling seasons and will be careful coming off his surgery. But he’s back where he wanted to be, ready to adjust and is happy again.
“I am 35, turning 36 (in December), so that possesses different obstacles throughout an 82-game season. It’s easy right now when we haven’t gotten into it yet but over six, seven months you have to take care of yourself a little bit differently than when you were 25. But I’d like to think I’m enough of a professional to be able to do that,” Sharp said. “There are a lots of ups and downs in a season. I try not to get too high or low and just enjoy the game.”
Brandon Saad seems like more of an NHL veteran than he is. From his size to his composed style of play to what he’s already accomplished at this level, Saad gives off that vibe that he’s been around much longer than he actually has. Even his teammates forget that.
“You think he may be 27, 28 years old. He’s only 24 years old. He’s still a young kid,” Patrick Kane said. “Guys like [Ryan] Hartman and [Vinnie] Hinostroza are only 23 so he’s not much older than them, even though he might seem it. He’s got a great future.”
Saad’s future is once again being played out in Chicago and he couldn’t feel better about returning. Back in a familiar city and a familiar spot on the ice – alongside Jonathan Toews – Saad is ready to reignite the top line with Toews and Richard Panik. Outside of some scrimmages the line hasn’t gotten much of a chance to see where things are yet – their first preseason game was against Columbus on Saturday. But Saad said things are coming together.
“It was still [Toews’] first game back and my first time with him but we’re pretty familiar with each other. I don’t think it’ll take long at all,” he said following the team’s first practice at Notre Dame on Sunday. “Any time you come from a five-month summer into the season your timing’s always a little off, and then with a new player going back to a familiar player, I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Toews recognized Saad’s desire to be a big part of this team when the left wing was a rookie. That drive hasn’t diminished.
“His rookie year I kept saying you could see that intangible quality in him, that he wanted to get better every single night,” Toews said. “You see players with raw, physical talent and ability but don’t take it upon themselves to be one of the guys every single night. Saader was showing that right away and you could tell he was just going to get better and better.”
The powerful part of Saad’s game the Blackhawks missed the most was evident in his first preseason contest back with him, against Detroit on Thursday. The Red Wings didn’t have their top squad but Saad was nevertheless dominant, recording a hat trick in which all three goals were within a few feet of the net. The top line has had that element here and there the past two seasons but no doubt felt Saad’s absence.
“He’s a high-end player or potential player that should develop into a regular scorer and who knows what he could do,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I still think there’s room where maybe he could go to a better level as far as production goes, because he gets so many looks around the net with his quickness and the way he protects the puck and the way he can shoot it.”
Saad reaching another level. Again, you see what he’s done so far and you forget that he’s only 24. He still has a lot of time – and potential – ahead of him.
“He’s stepping in here knowing he’ll be one of those guys heavily keyed upon for us,” Toews said. “And he’s ready for that and excited for it.”