Brandon Saad returns to Chicago a little older, a little wiser

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Before he was a two-time Stanley Cup champion, before he was an established young star in the NHL, before he was anointed the next Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad was just an unnerved rookie sitting in his locker stall at the United Center, listening to Jamal Mayers desperately try to inspire some life into a team that was trailing 3-1 in its 2013 second-round playoff series against the Detroit Red Wings.

Mayers, a scratch throughout the postseason but a respected voice, reminded everyone in the room that just a few months earlier, the Blackhawks had burst out of the lockout on a record 21-0-3 tear, so winning three games in a row was no sweat. But he also sent a fiery warning to the spoiled younger guys in the room — guys like Saad, and Andrew Shaw, and Marcus Kruger — who had never been on a bad team. Who had never gone through a season-long slog of meaningless hockey. Who had never played a home game in front of thousands of empty seats.

A third-straight early playoff exit would mean top-to-bottom changes in the organization, Mayers warned. And then he started pointing his finger around the room.

And you’re going to be in Nashville. And you’re going to be in Minnesota. And you’re going to be in Columbus.

“And if you’re on a bad team,” Mayers said, “it’s not fun.”

That spring, of course, ended with Saad hoisting the Stanley Cup over his head. A year later, he went all the way to overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference final. A year after that, he was a champion again.

Then, suddenly, Saad was gone — wiped off the hockey map, shipped off to Columbus after a botched contract negotiation. And Saad quickly learned first-hand just how right Mayers was. By the time the Hawks arrived in Columbus for the last game of the regular season in April 2016, the Blue Jackets were dead last in their division, 20 points out of the playoff picture. And Saad sounded different. Less buoyant, more defeated. Less optimistic, more world-weary. He had gotten a taste of how the other half lived, and he didn’t like it.

“It was a tough season, for sure,” Saad said. “Going from winning the Stanley Cup to being on one of the bottom teams in the league, it was hard. For me, with Chicago, we never had a bad year. It was my first year going through that type of thing. But you can always find positives and make improvements. You learn a lot about yourself going through that.”

Of course, the Saad that returns to Chicago this fall, reacquired in a stunning trade for Artemi Panarin, brings more than just a more worldly view of the NHL with him. He brings cost certainty — signed for four more years at a $6-million cap hit, far below what Panarin will command when his contract expires in two years. He’s also the logical replacement for his old linemate, Hossa. Like Hossa, Saad is a stellar defensive forward. Like Hossa, he’s nearly impossible to knock off the puck. Like Hossa, he’s a proven finisher in front of the net.

But perhaps more than anything, Saad brings the hope that he can rekindle the magic he had with Jonathan Toews.

“We’ve got it in our minds that he’d be a perfect fit on Jonny’s left side,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said.

The Hawks captain played some of his best hockey with Saad as his primary left wing in the lockout season and in 2014-15. In terms of traditional stats, Toews was a point-a-game player during the lockout season, and had 28 goals in 2014-15. In terms of advanced stats, Toews’ possession numbers were significantly higher with Saad than without (in 2013 alone, Toews posted a tremendous 58.7 Corsi percentage with Saad, and a more modest 53.4 percent without him). And in the most important stat of all, Toews won two Stanley Cups with Saad as his left wing.

With Saad in Columbus, Toews went through more than a dozen left wings, and had two of the least productive seasons of his career. But while Saad is excited to be back at Toews’ side, he doesn’t feel any added pressure to bring out the best in the Hawks’ most indispensable forward.

“He’s someone you don’t worry about,” Saad said. “But if I can contribute and help him out, that’s great. Hopefully I can play with him and elevate my own game, as well.”

Saad doesn’t even turn 25 until Oct. 27 — he’s younger than Panarin, younger than Tanner Kero, less than two years older than Ryan Hartman. But he’s very much a veteran now. In Chicago, he was the “Man-Child,” a terrific complementary piece to a team built for perennial success. In Columbus, he became a top guy, a leader, a 31-goal-scorer, and a key part of a remarkable turnaround that saw the Blue Jackets rocket to the top of the standings last season.

He’s a little older, a little wiser, and a lot more appreciate of what he has in Chicago. Yes, he admitted it’s still a little weird to be back, to be slipping on that Hawks jersey in the cramped locker room at Johnny’s IceHouse West, to be back on the ice with Patrick Sharp and the seven other players left from that 2015 team.

Weird, he said, “but awesome.”

“Guys that have been around the league and have been in Chicago know how great things are there, and how successful the team is,” Saad said. “It’s not like this everywhere. I remember my first game in the NHL, and you just assume that’s how it is everywhere. But it’s not. [Knowing that] reminds you not to take it for granted, how good it is there, and how much fun it is winning. It’s crazy to be back, but really, it’s like I never left.”

Twitter: @marklazerus

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