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Breaking Open The Brandon Saad Trade: Who "Wins"?

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If it's possible to know who "wins" this trade now, let's see if we can find out, shall we?

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Raise your hand if you saw this one coming. I'll admit to first seeing the Tweet I linked to yesterday from Elliotte Friedman and having to check it several times. There was a "fake" Twitter Elliotte around the draft, and so I wanted to make sure it was legit before linking to it here. I mean, we all assumed we'd trade forwards for a defenseman, right? So, who actually saw this coming?

Not me.

My first reaction was one of sheer joy. It felt like a total steal to me, as three of the four players going to Chicago were very clearly not in the Blue Jackets' long-term plans. I love Artem Anisimov's game, but he was going to be a UFA at season's end, and with the budding stardom of Ryan Johansen, the long term deal (and incredible presence on the club) of Brandon Dubinsky, and the emergence late last season of Alexander Wennberg, the center position in Columbus looks to be set for the next 5-7 years. Add in the fact that Chicago has signed him to a FIVE year extension... while I certainly wish him well, that wasn't going to happen here.

Finally, there are the injury issues. Arty missed a total of 44 games (out of a possible 212, so almost 21% of the time he was here) in his three years in Columbus due to injury. He suffered a triceps tear this past season that stole 23 of those games, but more concerning are the concussions. He missed time this past season with a concussion as well after a high hit from Eric Gryba left him crumpled in a heap. He also missed time in February and March of 2013 with the same injury.

I'm not trying to revise history. I like Arty's game, and when healthy he's a very solid, valuable player. If he stays healthy in Chicago, he will do well. But, for Columbus, he was a great asset to have in this trade. He wasn't in the long-term plans, and he gave the team a great bargaining chip in this deal. Add in that his $4 million salary (and $3.283 million cap hit) is now off the books, and that's a huge help (mainly in the effort to re-sign Saad).

Verdict: PUSH (Both teams benefit greatly in terms of longer-term team need)

Before we get to the two biggest pieces of this trade, let's look at the four players under the surface. The Jackets sent Jeremy Morin and Corey Tropp to Chicago, and eceived prospects Michael Paliotta (D) and Alex Broadhurst (C) in return. First, what did we give up?

I'll start with Tropp first. The answer is: NOTHING. Tropp appears to be a complete throw-in to help clear roster (and a tiny, tiny bit of cap) space. Tropp played 107 games for Columbus, including playoffs. Just let that sink in for a minute.

...

Done puking? Good.

In those 107 games, he was good for three goals. Three. 3. He did manage 15 assists as well. Just brutal. Along the way, however, he picked up 113 PIM. Tropp got sent to the press box down the stretch, and not entirely coincidentally the team went nuts in a good way. Tropp never seemed like he could ever identify the kind of play he wanted to be. Energy guy? "Enforcer"? He never did any one thing particularly well, except for that one nice goal he scored against Pittsburgh (and every Jackets fan remembers it, because it was literally his one highlight here).

I could trot out a ton of fancy stats to tell you how bad Corey Tropp is. I won't do that, because you all know the deal. Click the link and start toggling the displays... it's not pretty. Suffice it to say that, this past season, Tropp was -83 in scoring chances while he was on the ice. He's a black hole.

Most of us here had him penciled in for a trip through waivers to the AHL, so the fact that he is now an "asset" in helping the Jackets land two prospects--one of whom has a chance to make the NHL roster at some point this season--is a total and utter win for Jarmo and Davidson.

As for Morin, well, he's an enigma. He came over from Chicago, where he was apparently struggling to stay out of Joel Quenneville's doghouse. He showed flashes after his arrival of having speed and a sneaky shot, but he missed two months in the spring with an elevated heart beat. And while after his return his speed bolstered the new-look fourth line, the fact remains that he notched only six points in 28 games. He has potential, still, but it's not like there was a clear path for him to jump higher in the lineup for Columbus this coming season or next.

Neither of these guys were locks to make the CBJ opening night roster. When one considers what Chicago's wing depth looks like, they're probably in no better position to claim roster spots in Chicago, either, especially considering Morin's history with Quenneville and the Hawks.

Also factor in that including these two lops $1.425 million from the CBJ salary cap this season (and saves them $1.525 million in actual dollars), and this is a big win for Columbus. Gone are two guys who were not guaranteed a roster spot--as well as their salaries--and in come two prospects, one of whom is highly thought of.

What about those prospects? The prize of the deal in those terms is clearly Paliotta, who is a large (6'3", 200 lbs) right-handed defenseman, formerly a 2011 third round pick of the Blackhawks. Ironically for Columbus at this point, he was rumored to be a guy who might use the CBA loophole for college players to enter the free agent market, but the Hawks managed to get him signed and get him into an NHL game this year. It was basically the Bizarro Mike Reilly Situation.

Paliotta is a US-developed defenseman who played four years in college at the University of Vermont, where he finished as the team Captain. After being drafted in 2011 and viewed primarily as a big bodied (yet mobile) defensive defenseman, he lived up to that by averaging just 10 points in each of his first two years. However, he pleasantly blossomed a bit offensively in the two years that followed, notching 5/22/27 in 38 games his junior year and 9/27/36 in 41 games this past year. He's a big, big kid who can skate well for his size, and if that offense can translate at the professional level he can end up being a huge swing in this deal in favor of Columbus. He will most certainly come to camp in the fall with a chance to make the Blue Jackets.

A scout told Alan Muir in the link above:

"He’ll make his mark as a smart, positionally sound banger, but it’s good to see the offense coming. When you leave a kid in school, you want to see that skill development. You want him to improve on what he does well and round it off with a few new tricks. He was a good prospect before. He looks like a player now."

Stan Bowman had this to say about Paliotta back when they signed him in March:

"He’s a big kid. He’s got a physical side to his game. He’s not afraid to play a rugged game. But he’s worked on his skills, which is something we’ve talked about. Take advantage of it when you’re in college. He plays a lot of the power-play situations, and he’s done well with it. He’s someone we’re definitely looking to as soon as he finishes his year we want to turn pro."

Here's what Chicago Blackhawks development coach Mark Eaton has to say:

In short, he's not just a throw-in. It sounds a lot like a slightly bigger Dalton Prout who can actually skate, knows how to be in position, and can actually chip in some offense occasionally. So, maybe a "Dalton Tyutin" kind of player, if you will; a poor-man's (at least for right now) Fedor Tyutin with a bit more size. He's not Mike Reilly, and that's OK, as he might be a little more defensively polished despite giving up quite a bit offensively.

As for Broadhurst, he feels more like depth to me, but I'm OK with that. A seventh rounder in that same 2011 draft, he's a small (5'10", 170 lbs) left-handed center. He played two additional years of junior hockey (one in the US and one in the OHL) after being drafted, and then spent the past two years in Rockford of the AHL where he was average-at-best, with 22 goals and 37 assist in 104 games. His size will be his biggest hurdle, and he battled an injury this past season that limited him to just 29 games.

His scouting reports list him as a hard worker who plays a decent two-way game and has chipped in points at the lower developmental levels. He has a tiny bit of upside, but he feels like a fine piece of AHL depth who might develop into an NHL depth player down the road.

All in all, these are two decent prospects--one very good, and one marginal--for the price of two players who really didn't even have spots guaranteed and were more potential road blocks than anything, and are not guys that the Blackhawks should count on for any meaningful contributions this season.

Verdict: WIN FOR COLUMBUS

And finally, we come to the two biggest assets changing hands in this trade: Brandon Saad and Marko Dano. While I like Anisimov as I said above, the "long term winner" of this deal hinges on which of these two has the best future. Saad is just two years older than Dano, but he has a wealth of experience on his resume. He doesn't turn 23 until October, and already he's played 208 NHL regular season games to go with 67 playoff games (AND TWO CUPS). He's played three full seasons and missed just six games. He's big, he's fast, and he plays the game both ways.

A lot has been made of Saad's linemates, and it certainly warrants mentioning that, in his three seasons his most frequent linemates were:

Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews this past season, when he notched 23 goals and 29 assists (in 82 games)
Andrew Shaw and Patrick Kane in '13-'14, when he notched 19 goals and 28 assists (in 78 games)
Hossa and Toews in his rookie year '12-'13, when he notched 10 goals and 17 assists (in 46 games)

So, there are two ways to look at this: one, he has certainly shown tremendous promise at a young age to start his career, with 52 goals and 126 points in his first 208 games (0.25 goals/game and 0.61 points/game), not to mention adding 15/19/34 in 67 playoff games en route to two Cup wins. That's, simply put, AWESOME. For comparison's sake, Ryan Johansen is just three months older (though the two qualified for different draft years), but came in with a higher draft pedigree. He's played in 63 more games than Saad, and has 73/94/167 in that span (0.27 goals/game and 0.62 points/game). Those numbers are pretty dead-on-balls comparable.

On the other hand, Saad has played with three of the game's best players over his entire career for the most part, and it's not surprising that his numbers would reflect that. That said, he was fourth on the Blackhawks in scoring (with an asterisk by Kane's numbers due to his injury; he was playing over a point per game before he got hurt), and he finished just 14 points behind Toews.

Here's why I don't think that it matters all that much that he played with great players.

1. Jarmo has said that he would like to see Saad play with Johansen, and the drop off is not *that* huge if he plays with Johansen for the bulk of the season. If Nick Foligno ends up on the right wing and is able to come close to reproducing his previous season's numbers, Saad will be fine. If Cam Atkinson is on the right wing, he, too could flourish from the speed and spacing afforded by Saad and Johansen. In short, it's not like Saad is going from a Cadillac line to a shitbox Dodge line. He's going to get the opportunity to play with very good players here, too.

2. Saad is still ONLY 22 years old at this moment. If we contend that Ryan Johansen hasn't yet hit his ceiling despite putting up back to back solid seasons, why shouldn't the same hold true for Saad? Many Chicago fans feel that his years spent with Hossa were very beneficial in terms of picking up playing a solid two-way game. His speed and size are not in question. His shooting percentage for his career is 11.2%, and it has never spiked: he was at 10.2% as a rookie, then followed it up with an 11.9% season and an 11.3% season. And, his EV PDO in each of those three seasons never really spiked either outside of his rookie year: 1030 his rookie year (lockout shortened, it should be noted), 996 last season, and 1010 this season. He's not a "lucky" player. He hasn't had one crazy stretch that skews his numbers. What we see is a solid, solid offensive player who's getting it done in part to playing with good teammates, but in part due to consistent effort and skill.

3. He played with great players, but he played AGAINST great players, too. His QualCom numbers from this past season are strong, finishing third among forwards--behind both Toews and Hossa, naturally--in both Corsi QoC and Corsi Rel QoC at even strength. So, yes, playing with good players always helps, but it's not like Saad is feasting against weak competition; he's holding up his end on a line with two Hall of Famers playing against top-shelf competition.

In summary, Saad is a good, good player. He can get better as he matures. He brings instant credibility to the dressing room, having played on two Cup teams and having played with two of the best players in the league routinely. He plays a two-way game, is a legit 20-goal guy with potential to go higher, and has been consistent for all three of his seasons.

Now, for Marko Dano. It's no secret that Jackets fans love him, and the way he finished the season this year had us all excited about his future. He finished the season with 8/13/21 in 35 games in Columbus, wrapped around a 39-game stint in the AHL in which he put up 11/8/19. He's two years younger than Saad, and thus obviously doesn't have the sample size to truly compare. But, we can compare his rookie year to Saad's rookie year, since the lockout limited Saad to just 11 more games.

Dano's point totals come out to 0.23 goals/game and 0.60 points/game. Saad put up 0.22 goals/game and 0.59 points/game. Dano finished with a 1039 PDO at even strength; Saad was at 1030 in his rookie year. Dano's shooting percentage was 9.5%, Saad's was 10.2%. Those things look pretty consistent. The biggest difference is a double-edged sword, if you will: Dano's QualCom numbers lag far, far behind Saad's from his rookie year, but of course Saad was playing with Toews and Hossa, meaning he was playing with better players than did Dano (with no offense intended to Alexander Wennberg and Scott Hartnell, with whom Dano clicked the most).

So, the short version is that: both guys put up similar numbers their rookie years. Saad did it with better linemates, but against tougher competition. Call it a wash.

Therein lies the rub of this trade: is Dano primed to take a big leap forward like Saad has done, and is his ceiling thus higher in the long run? This will go a long way toward deciding who the "winner" of this deal is on the ice. For now, though, the clear winner on the ice as these two teams go to camp in terms of these two players is Columbus.

Verdict 1: WIN FOR COLUMBUS

But, there's more to it. Saad is now a restricted free agent, set to get a pretty good raise. He's in the same boat that Johansen was in last summer, in that he's coming off his ELC, has similar numbers, and has no arbitration rights. Let's assume he ends up getting a similar but slightly larger contract and put his upcoming cap hit in the neighborhood of $5 million. This is the big "win" for Chicago in the here and now. Dano is two years behind Saad, meaning he's entering year two of his ELC. He's set to make $925,000 this season and next. So, overall, the Jackets sent back $5.633 million in cap hit for this season, but Dano is cheap for the next two seasons, Tropp and Morin come off the books after the season, and Anisimov is probably signing a longer-term deal that can be cap-friendly.

The big difference there, however, is Dano versus Saad. The Blackhawks are taking the calculated gamble that Dano can adequately replace most or all of Saad's production for potentially $3-$4 million less in cap hit, and that he won't need to get a new contract until two years from now when they will have more cap space (assuming they make more moves to free up space combined with the cap continuing to rise). The Hawks have turned one asset at the NHL level into three or four (depending on Morin and Tropp) at essentially the same price for this season. This allows them to more avenues to make moves to get under the cap... something they were going to have to do anyway. They also get two long-term players for the price of one (depending on Pailotta). Chicago is betting that Anisimov and Dano will be better in the long term than Saad and Paliotta, and they're willing to kick the salary can down the road as part of it.

The final longer term wild card is: if Dano does turn into the player Chicago hopes he can be, he's going to put them right back into the same boat in two years when he becomes an RFA. That said, two years from now is two years from now, and who knows what their cap situation looks like by then. It's a calculated risk, again.

For Columbus, the move clears up a logjam at forward, and as noted above appears to be a wash financially.

Verdict 2: SLIGHT EDGE, CHICAGO

So, while at first I thought this trade was a total steal for the Jackets, when we really break it down it definitely evens out a bit. This might be homer-bias, but I still think Columbus is the clear winner in the here and now, as the Blackhawks didn't really fix their cap problems with this deal (though they did give themselves more "outs" to fix it, if you will) and it's hard to argue that Saad isn't the best player in the trade as of RIGHT NOW THIS MOMENT.

That said, Anisimov is a good player, but has battled injuries and is probably at his development ceiling right now, so the deal hinges on a lot of development for three players: Saad, Dano, and Paliotta. If Saad continues to improve over his time in Columbus and Paliotta becomes an NHL regular, Dano would have to completely blow up into a perennial All Star to even things out.

However, if Saad is at HIS ceiling, and Paliotta can't take any more steps forward (right now he's probably a 5/6/7 defenseman on a good team at best), and Dano continues to bloom, Chicago could end up with the best overall player in the trade. That's the risk both teams are taking.

As usual, when young players are traded, we don't truly know who the "winner" is for several years. This probably is the case here, too. The Jackets probably win THIS year, depending on Saad's contract status, but the true "winner" is probably legitimately up in the air for the next three years. The highlights of this trade, as I see them, are these:

  • Columbus is getting the best player in the trade as of right now (Saad).
  • Chicago gets the player with the highest ceiling over the next five years, most likely (Dano).
  • Chicago is getting by far the worst player in the deal (Tropp), and is getting another NHL player (Morin) that doesn't exactly have a high ceiling given his previous experience in Chicago, all while adding $1.5 million in salary THIS year.
  • It's a wash financially for both teams right now, but it provides the Blackhawks with more flexibility over the next two seasons given Dano's and Saad's respective contract situations.
  • Columbus adds to their stable of defensive prospects, and fills a need for a right-handed shot at the high-professional level. His development potential could make this trade a huge win for Columbus, as his ceiling is higher than Tropp's and Morin's combined.
  • Anisimov is a wild card. If healthy, he's a huge get for Chicago. If they sign him to an extension and he continues to battle injuries, however, it will hurt them over the long term.

Columbus got better yesterday. Losing Anisimov and Dano does hurt, but the development of Wennberg, the huge addition of Saad up front, and the addition of Paliotta more than mitigates that pain. Chicago didn't save any money in the here-and-now, and they are counting on Dano's development to be the thing that tips the scales in the long-term for this trade. That they just signed Anisimov for five years all but wipes out any perceived cap savings from Saad's pending deal.

I was at a loss as to why Chicago made this move, other than they must have felt an offer sheet for Saad was coming and didn't feel like they could match it (Columbus can, however). Even without the arguments about Dano vs. Saad combined with the versatility of Anisimov, it just didn't make sense to me. It doesn't fix their cap issues right now, and it is predicated on the gamble that Dano will develop into a worthy replacement for Saad. He might. He certainly showed that he's on the right track when you compare their rookie years. But, it's still just a guess. The fact that they threw in Paliotta--who in all fairness is a bit redundant in their system given some of the defensive prospects that they have--in exchange for taking some of the Jackets' trash only accentuates the head-scratching on my end.

This trade is a good trade for the Blue Jackets, even if Dano blows up in the next few years. Anisimov was going to get traded, no matter what, it appears. Saad is a bonafide top six (potentially first line) wing, and Dano is all potential at this point. Saad has legit playoff experience, and two Cup rings that command instant respect. Saad has played with--and presumably learned from--two Hall of Fame players. The Jackets lost two contributing players from last season, but also pawned off two guys from their roster just eating space in Morin and Tropp. The Jackets also grabbed two prospects, one of whom could make the NHL roster this year in an area of need.

The Blackhawks might get the better overall player in Dano once their careers are said and done, but it's not like the Jackets gave him away for nothing.

I just can't see a way to look at this deal right now and say anything other than it's a win for Columbus.

FINAL VERDICT: COLUMBUS WINS THIS TRADE IN THE HERE-AND-NOW