Should Brandon Saad Replace Bryan Bickell on Chicago Blackhawks' Top Line?
It isn't surprising that Bryan Bickell is struggling while Brandon Saad continues to do what he's always done: Produce, no matter what the situation or line combination. Heading into the 2013-14 NHL season, there was talk about whether or not Saad could and should center the second line.
That was the wrong conversation entirely. The question should have been "why is it that Bickell—and not Saad—is the shoo-in to play with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews?" While that wasn't the inquiry a few weeks ago, it absolutely should be now.
Saad has been the underdog before though. He's been the name after the ellipsis and the guy in the parenthesis since the middle of his draft year in 2011, when he started to slide down the IIHF's rankings. So it's relatively normal that it isn't him getting a long look on the top line for the 'Hawks while Bickell continues to botch his shot.
This is just how the story typically goes for Saad, who was once considered one of the top players available in the 2011 draft. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about Saad and his slipping stock in June of 2011 as the event approached:
...even if Saad is claimed in Round 1, it will not happen as early as many people once believed it would.
A year ago, Saad, a forward from Gibsonia, was being talked about as a potential top-five selection, with an occasional whisper that he might be the first prospect taken.
Not anymore. These days, Saad looks more likely to be a mid- to late-first round pick.
Round 1 came and went, and Saad still hadn't heard his name. Nearly half of the second round went by, with teams passing on him for a second time. With the 43rd overall pick, Chicago rolled the dice on him and Saad has done nothing but blow the organization away at every turn since.
While several of the top selections from 2011 are still trying to find their respective games at the pro level, Saad is in the midst of helping Chicago defend their Stanley Cup championship. In typical Saad fashion, he continues to play his strong two-way game while biding his time and waiting for bigger opportunities.
Right now, that bigger opportunity is a spot on the top unit alongside Kane and Toews.
Bickell has been the most frequent player to line up in that slot so far during the 2013-14 season, but he's done squat with the chance of a hockey lifetime. Well, almost nothing—He had an assist against the Tampa Bay Lightning on October 5, and since then he's managed to produce zero points.
Bickell is averaging more than 15 minutes of ice time per game according to ESPN.com, and is on pace to put up 14 points through 82-game season. Those are mind-numbingly unacceptable numbers for a guy who's playing alongside two of the best forwards in the world.
John Scott could hop on that line and score 15 goals in a season. Nikolai Khabibulin could dress as an emergency forward and still manage to have a two-point game occasionally while screening the goalie for Kane or taking one-timers from Toews.
Even more alarming than the lack of offense has been Bickell's ineffectiveness on the defensive side of the puck. He's a minus-two right now and has looked lost in the neutral and defensive zones against the opposition's top lines.
Meanwhile, Saad is on pace for nearly 70 points and carries a plus-two rating while playing mostly with the second unit. He might not round out the season as a 30-goal, 40-assist guy, but the simple fact is that he's playing like one at the moment and Bickell is not.
Hockey is a results-based business, so why is it still Bickell on the top line instead of Saad? Money plays in the NHL and Chicago just gave the former a big contract extension over the summer (despite the fact that he'd only managed to play like a top-six forward during a single playoff run). Saad, on the other hand, has always projected as a top-six forward in this league, regardless of his slipping draft stock.
Chicago isn't sinking down the standings and don't have a desperate need to shake things up, but the 'Hawks aren't dominating like they should be. They are currently 14th in the league in goals-for per game according to NHL.com and are the eighth-best defensive squad, allowing 2.33 goals-against on average.
Should Brandon Saad get a look on Chicago's top line?
Still, there's the feeling that this team could be even better. There's no reason not to give Saad a look on the top line at this point. He played with Toews a ton last season and the two looked great in all three zones.
Bickell clearly needs to rediscover what made him successful during the playoffs, and a stint with the second or third line could be exactly the jolt that he needs.
For now though, Saad will continue to bide his time. He'll continue to be the guy no one mentions until it comes to afterthoughts. Once his gets his shot with Kane and Toews though, don't be shocked if you never see Bickell on that line again.
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