On Friday, members of the 2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks team that won the Stanley Cup will be reuniting in a game for charity. It's a fun event that should raise money for a good cause, but it's also a sad reminder for Blackhawks fans of just how good that team was. It's a reminder that the salary cap system wiped out any chance at forming what could have been a dynasty.
In Rockford, Ill., home of the Blackhawks' AHL affiliate, the IceHogs, GM Mark Bernard is seeing the benefits of that post-Cup dismantling. GM Stan Bowman and then-assistant GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, now running the Jets, did a great job accumulating young talent and draft picks under tough circumstances. Everybody in the league knew they had to cut salary, and yet they got a strong return for the players they had to deal. Mix in strong drafting from director of scouting Mark Kelley and the result is a talented collection of players in the AHL, waiting for the lockout to end so they can resume chasing NHL time in Chicago.
Brandon Saad has the potential to be the best of the talented group playing in Rockford right now. He's off to a slow start in the AHL (no goals and a minus-2 in three games) but the big winger is a player Bernard is thrilled to have, even if it's not for very long.
"We didn't know if we'd see him in Rockford," Bernard said. "He's come in and played well to this point. He missed the last couple games with a minor injury but he's a guy we're really excited about having. He has a great combination of size and skill and he's not afraid to go to the corners and the front of the net."
Two topics always come up when conversations evolve around Saad. One is how far he slipped in the 2011 draft (No. 43 overall pick). The other is his impressive training camp last year that earned him a short taste in the NHL on Chicago's top line before being returned to the OHL's Saginaw Spirit.
The theories on why he slipped to the second round in 2011 vary. There's no doubt he was playing hurt and a groin injury contributed to a lackluster season in which he still managed 27 goals in 59 games for the Spirit. Others questioned his motivation and ability to play at a high level every night.
"This guy is a first-round talent," said an Eastern Conference scout. "That gives you an indication the trust wasn't there and the inconsistency was."
This scout predicted that Saad would have been a top-10 pick -- if not top-five -- if his draft year came a year earlier after Saad's impressive performances with the U.S National Team Development Program. He's not alone.
"He was a great underager," said a Western Conference scout. "He was a dominant player in the U-18 [World Championships]. A dominant player."
But to his credit, Saad put the draft slide behind him, had a huge camp and then followed it with a big season in Saginaw last season, putting up 76 points in 44 games.
Had last season been his draft year, his draft stock would have been right where it was when he was 17.
"If last year would have been his draft year, he would have gone in the top two or three," Bernard suggested.
So there's no doubt Kelley and his staff struck gold with first-round potential in the second round. Now the question becomes: Which Saad emerges consistently in the NHL?
If Saad can continue to find the consistency in his game, he should emerge as a top-six forward who scores between 25 and 30 goals per season.
"He's got good size and he's got the frame," Bernard said. "He's only going to get stronger. Hockey strong. He's a young boy still, a young kid. As he works with our fitness and development guys, he's going to get stronger physically."
Besides his size and willingness to compete in the toughest areas on the ice, Bernard has been impressed with Saad's vision.
"He has the vision you can't teach, the hockey sense you can't teach," Bernard said. "You either have it or you don't have it. He's going to be a good player."
Scouts who soured on Saad during his draft year were impressed with the way he rebounded last year, which is a positive sign for his character and drive.
"The growth in his game last year was big time," said one scout. "He's another enigma. When he's on the top of his game, his best shift is really, really good. If he can find a way to make his best shift his regular shift ... you're going to get a 20- to 30-goal scorer. Can he be a regular 30-goal scorer? There's no reason."
First of all, Bernard doesn't even like to discuss the floor for a kid who is just 19 years old.
"I wouldn't even want to put a worst-case scenario on Brandon Saad. It's too early," he said. "With these young players, you can't rush to make decisions on them. To put a worst-case scenario would be wrong."
For Saad, the skill set is there, so he's likely to have a lengthy NHL career. But the downside could be that he spends a few years in the AHL or bouncing back and forth trying to consistently find that high-end play he flashes at times.
"He has the size and enough skill to play [at worst] on the fourth line in the NHL," said the Eastern Conference scout. "He could be a guy who disappoints you. Consistently. And ends up being shipped from team to team."
Another scout suggested that Saad's career will, at worst, end up on the third line.
"It's just consistency and adapting and knowing what your niche is -- where do you fit in?" he said. "There's too much there. He can definitely be a third-line guy, no problem at all."
Grant Sonier's take
ESPN.com NHL scouting insider Grant Sonier weighs in on Saad's ceiling and floor:
Best-case: "Top-line forward. He's a potential 30-goal scorer. For whatever reason, the wattage is off at times in his light bulb right now. But it's a bright light. If the light ever consistently comes on based on the physical tools he has, he's going to be good. He was a top-five pick all the way coming out of the U.S. development team. His consistent play fell off. Now all of a sudden, he loses confidence and it's a spiral down. Then he goes to Chicago and all of a sudden he's a steal of the draft. It's always like this, but it's magnified with him -- it's up to Brandon Saad how good or how quick he's going to reach the ceiling, if he ever does."
Worst-case: "Because he has shown us how unmotivated he can be, the floor for me is that he doesn't make it at all. It's that dramatic. I've seen him play that poorly and that unmotivated. If he didn't have that history [as an underager] and nobody knew him his draft year, he would have been a fifth- or sixth-round pick. He goes in the second round because we've seen way too many good things out of him before that. He's so big and so powerful and that was the one thing that was noticeable his draft year. It looked like he couldn't skate all of a sudden. Was it conditioning? Was it the injury? This kid has proved he has the ability to overcome all that."