Brandon Saad: Is There Room For Improvement?
With the discussion we've had about how "good" Brandon Saad is, we need to ask this question as well: can he get even better?
Now that Brandon Saad has been signed for the next six years, we can start to look toward training camp. GM Jarmo Kekalainen was very clear the day of the trade that he envisions Saad playing with Ryan Johansen as his center, which would mean the top line here in Columbus.
One of the biggest discussion points about Saad is who he played with in Chicago. Clearly, he played with great players, being on a line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa most often. So, the debate in some ways centers on this fact. Is he partly a product of playing with such good players? (Yes.) But, is he also a good player who holds up his end of that bargain? (Also, yes.)
As I tried to show in my trade breakdown piece, Saad has shown himself to be consistent, doing what he does while playing with good players, but also against good players. He plays in all three phases of the game, and the Blue Jackets are looking to him to be one of their top line options. Beyond that, Saad is still just 22 years old, and some points of data suggest that he has room to grow.
Rhetorically speaking, he's basically the same age as Ryan Johansen, and if we reasonably believe that Johansen isn't at his ceiling yet, how can we assume that Saad IS at his?
Let's explore some possibilities.
First and foremost, we've talked about Saad's numbers in other posts. The first big thing we can break down is his ice time. In Chicago last season, he averaged 17:15 of TOI/G. That was fourth-best on his team, and would have been fifth best on the Jackets, just edged out by Scott Hartnell's 17:17. Consider that Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno (who are two guys I'll be using as measuring sticks, since they potentially will all play together) averaged 19:30 and 18:49 respectively. Granted, Johansen's numbers spiked due to his overuse early in the season as the club battled injuries. That said, Joey is this club's horse. However, we can't just look at that one number and extrapolate. We gotta break it down!
In terms of even strength ice time, Saad ranked sixth in terms of forwards on his team, at 13.52 TOI/60 (meaning, for every 60 minutes of ice time his team had, he played a hair over 13:30 of it). It should be noted that, via Behind The Net, Antoine Vermette finished ahead of him, but his entire season stats from Arizona skew that a bit. Even still, of the main scoring options on the Blackhawks, he was fourth, behind Kane (15.33), Toews (14.21), and Hossa (14.06). Despite that, he was second behind only Kane in goals/60 at EV for Chicago, notching a 1.08 number there, which would have tied him for the team lead in Columbus with Matt Calvert and Scott Hartnell. Saad was also sixth on his club in primary assists/60 at 0.65, which would have put him at fifth on the Jackets. His overall P/60 finished at 2.22, which was good for fourth on his team, and would have been second on the Jackets.
Compare that to the Jackets last season. Johansen led the way at 14.74 at EV in that category, with Nick Foligno right behind him at 14.36 (Scott Hartnell came in at 14.38, but since he probably won't see much ice time with Saad I'm skipping him). Assuming that Saad is playing with Johansen (and possibly Foligno) and thus getting those top line minutes, his ice time number is going to jump up. Consider that Nick Foligno had very similar numbers in terms at even strength: 1.06 G/60, and 0.58 A1/60, and Johansen was at 0.84 G/60 and 0.69 A1/60. Overall, their P/60 numbers were 2.38 and 2.03, respectively.
That's a lot to digest, I know.
Here's the point: at EV, Saad puts up pretty much the same per/60 numbers as do Johansen and Foligno--at least in the ballpark for discussion. Johansen and Foligno, however, put those numbers up across more ice time at even strength. Thus, it stands to reason that Saad's numbers would take a slight tick upward if he gets that commensurate ice time. Saad scored 22 even strength goals last season (one was an empty netter) and had 21 EV assists. If we crudely project Saad's numbers out with an increase in ice time to match the average of Johansen and Foligno (14.55), he would theoretically notch 24 EV goals and 23 EV assists. Not a huge jump, but a theoretical jump none the less.
Where Saad could really grow is on the Power Play. In Chicago, he was sixth in PP TOI/60, at 2.18, and managed just one goal and eight assists.. In Columbus, that TOI would put him fifth last season behind Johansen, Hartnell, Foligno, and Cam Atkinson. I think it's safe to assume that Saad will see his PP TOI jump up, by virtue of being tethered to Johansen (2.72 PP TOI/60). Foligno and Johansen were flat-out monsters on the PP last season (as was Hartnell). Foligno finished with splits of 3.10 G/60 and 7.45 P/60, and Johansen wasn't far behind with 1.88 G/60 and 6.18 P/60.
(In terms of forwards that played 50 or more games this past season, Foligno finished 14th in the league in P/60. Consider, also, that of the 13 guys in front of him, nine of them averaged 0.12 TOI/60 or less on the PP, meaning that their P/60 numbers are largely meaningless or skewed by one or two points in a small chunk of PP time. Foligno was just a MONSTER.)
If we apply the same idea here to the PP stats, we can project that Saad is going to get more time with the top PP unit in Columbus, playing with Johansen and (most likely) Foligno. While his 1/8/9 PP numbers in Chicago aren't earth-shattering for a top line guy, his TOI is going to go up, and he's going to be playing with two guys whose PP numbers crush anyone on Chicago's. The Jackets finished with a top-five PP unit, converting on 21.7% of their chances. The Blackhawks, surprisingly, languished at 20th in the league; considering their talent level, this does not compute.
All of that having been thrown onto the table, Saad is going to see more ice time on the Power Play with a better unit overall, and most likely with two forwards who were damn-near unstoppable on the man advantage. Unless he just flounders, he's going to get plenty of opportunities to see his Power Play production spike. His P/60 is already pretty good, and with those two guys it's probably going to go up.
Quality of Competition
As I noted in my earlier piece, one of the biggest things that indicates Saad's ability is that he had his best season this past season while playing against very, very strong competition. That line of Saad, Toews, and Hossa routinely played against the top competition night in and night out. For reference, their even strength QualCom numbers were beyond good:
In terms of forwards that played 60 or more games last season, Saad ranked 31st in the entire league in CorsiRelQoC, and 68th in the entire league in terms of CorsiQoC. At age 22.
Let's compare that to the situation in Columbus. Johansen has shown himself more than capable of matching up with the toughest competition, but Todd Richards also likes to match up other lines against top competition when his team is healthy. Matt Calvert and Brandon Dubinsky led the club in CorsiRelQoC last season, and Cam Atkinson, Ryan Johansen, and Nick Foligno (the three potential line mates for Saad) were third, fourth, and fifth.
What this tells us is potentially a stretch, but also potentially valid: Saad's going to see slightly less tough competition than he saw in Chicago, since he won't be tethered to the two defensive stoppers all the time, assuming he plays with Johansen. A healthy Dubinsky is the Jackets' shut-down center (we saw it in the 2014 playoffs), and that frees up Johansen's line to be the primary scoring option. This will only help Saad's numbers.
It also leads into a broader, more abstract thought.
The Jackets lost Artem Anisimov and Marko Dano in this trade. Anisimov was a very valuable forward for Columbus when healthy, and Dano showed flashes of being a guy with top-six potential. However, neither of those players was playing against the top competition, and I think it's fair to say Anisimov was on the trade table this summer no matter what the return was. He battled injuries in two of this three seasons in Columbus, including two concussions. Saad has been healthy in each of the past three years.
As good as Dano could be in the future, Saad is better right now; he's also better than Anisimov right now. His inclusion on the top line allows the Jackets to have a deeper top six, which in turn allows them to have a deeper forward core altogether. If healthy, the top six now consists of Saad, Johansen, Foligno, Boone Jenner, Dubinsky, and Atkinson. No one is playing too high in the lineup (I love Jenner, but he's not a top-line winger... yet). This move makes it more likely that Johansen and Foligno can keep up their 70+ point pace, and that Johansen--with more consistency on his wings--can go even higher. He had 45 assists last season. Is 50+ out of the question? I don't think so.
This move also means that players like Boone Jenner and Cam Atkinson (or Foligno, if Richards elects to go that way) can make the second line that much stronger. No disrespect to Anisimov, but having any combination of those three on the second line with Brandon Dubinsky is going to make the scoring threat of said line that much stronger. Losing Arty hurts on defense, but Jenner is certainly no defensive slouch.
Finally, Saad brings legitimate speed to the lineup, which is something the club has wanted ever since the playoffs in 2014 caused them to want to "play faster". Saad plays faster than Anisimov, and as fast--while being bigger and stronger on the puck--than Dano.
Looking at the Power Play, he makes an already-dangerous unit even better. Saad played almost double the PP minutes of Anisimov and Dano COMBINED last season. Whether Saad plays with the top unit and bumps Scott Hartnell down to the second unit, or plays on the second unit, the league's fifth-best Power Play unit just got better without losing anything major up front.
Anisimov was a counted on PKer when he was healthy, and while Saad didn't play the same TOI/60 on the PK as did Arty, he did play significant PK minutes for Chicago.
None of this "means" anything in terms of Saad's ceiling or potential future development, but to me it implies that there's room for him to grow as he takes on a bigger role with Columbus than what he had in Chicago. When you play on a line with two future Hall of Famers, there's always going to be some drop off. But, the drop off to Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno would not be too steep. Add in that the drop in quality of competition might in fact be steep, coupled with a presumed jump in Power Play time, and from a numbers perspective there is plenty of room for Brandon Saad to continue to grow.