There are a lot of superstars on the Chicago Blackhawks, and that's just one of the reasons they won the Stanley Cup last year and have an excellent chance to defend their championship this year.
You don't have to be a diehard fan to know that it starts with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and that defenseman Duncan Keith and forwards Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp are right behind.
That's an excellent group of star players who can impact any game. But it's not just the headliners that have made the Blackhawks a championship team.
Their support players all know their roles under head coach Joel Quenneville's system, and that allows the cohesiveness that it takes to win a 60-minute game.
Right now, 21-year-old Brandon Saad is one of those support players. He mans the right wing on the team's third line, with Andrew Shaw at center and Bryan Bickell on the left side.
Shaw is a non-stop hustler who has decent ability. When you combine his kind of work ethic with hockey know-how, you have a very adequate center who knows how to distribute the puck and make plays.
Bickell is a heavyweight of a winger, and the Blackhawks want him to assert himself down low. Bickell, who recently missed 14 games with a knee injury, has not always played with the consistency the Blackhawks want to see from him.
But Saad is a potential superstar. He made the Blackhawks as a 20-year-old rookie last year and was a solid contributor during the championship run. Saad scored 10 goals and 17 assists in 46 games during the lockout-shortened season, and he became a dependable player for Quenneville.
During the postseason, he scored one goal and five assists in 23 games. While that's not overwhelming production, he averaged 16:24 of ice time in those games. Quenneville simply felt comfortable having this 6'1", 202-pound frame on the ice.
Still, Saad had to feel his way most of the year. After getting drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft, Saad had the size, strength and skating ability needed to show that he belonged.
But he had to learn how the NHL game was played on a day-by-day basis.
Saad has looked far more mature and has been more productive through much of the first half of the 2013-14 season. Saad has scored 12 goals and 14 assists in his 37 games while recording a plus-18 rating. He is the Blackhawks' sixth-leading scorer.
He has impressed his teammates with his ability to put his skills on display. “He plays the game fast-paced all the time,” goalie Corey Crawford told Tracey Myers of CSNChicago.com. “He works hard and he’s got a lot of skill, too. It doesn’t surprise us that much that he’s able to put points up like that.”
Saad put his skill on display in an early-season 5-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild. With the Blackhawks leading 3-1 early in the third period, Saad came busting down the slot when he heard the not-so-gentle voice of Patrick Kane calling for the puck.
After watching Kane and playing with him for more than a season, he borrowed a page from Kane and made a perfect spin-o-rama pass that landed on Kane's tape. From there, it was easy for Kane to score.
It was the kind of pass that Kane could also have made—but it would have been difficult for any other Blackhawk to execute.
How many goals will Brandon Saad score this season?
Saad is already one of the more productive players on the team. He is growing more comfortable with his role on a championship team.
He has the size and strength to play in the corners and the dirty areas and be successful, but he has also shown the high skill level to make eye-catching plays when he has the opportunity.
Hockey's Future said that Saad is responsible in the defensive zone and has the tools to be a consistent offensive player. Its only complaint was that he needed to be more physical on a consistent basis.
That seems to be happening. Saad is on track for 25 goals and 55-60 points this season, which would be solid for a second-year player.
However, the future is even brighter. Saad looks like a player who could approach 30-35 goals when he reaches his peak.
That makes him a lot more than a role player on this championship team. It means he could become a star and a future leader.