CHICAGO – Blackhawks rookie Brandon Saad lined up at left wing for the opening faceoff Monday, as he does many nights when his team has a game.
To Saad’s left was a blue Bud Light logo painted beneath the ice surface at the United Center. To his right was a red-and-black Coca-Cola Zero logo of approximately the same size.
Hopefully, the kid picks caffeine – but not too soon before bedtime.
At 20 years, 5 months and 21 days old, Saad is the youngest player on the Hawks. And while he won’t celebrate his 21st birthday until October, he already has enjoyed grown-up success.
Saad notched another highlight in his remarkable rookie season during Monday’s 5-2 win against the Dallas Stars. He started on the top line and collected an assist when he snapped a cross-ice pass to Marian Hossa, who then fired the puck to Toews for a tip-in goal.
That made it 24 points this season for Saad, who has nine goals to go along with 15 assists. He is a top contender for the Calder Trophy, which is given to the league’s top rookie.
If you didn’t predict this kind of success back in January, that’s OK. Neither did Saad.
“No, definitely not,” Saad said with a grin before his latest start alongside Hossa and Toews. “It’s been a great year. During the lockout, I just wanted to make the team, really.”
Yeah, he did that.
Maybe you also were a high achiever at age 20. Perhaps you chose to serve in the military, or maybe you worked on the family farm or launched an online start-up or something.
As for me? Not so much.
Let’s just say that I was not in the running for a MacArthur Genius Grant when I was 20 years old. At that age, I considered it a successful day when I made a grilled cheese sandwich without setting off the fire alarm in my apartment.
Actually, I’m still pretty proud when that happens.
Saad is proud of other things, like catapulting from the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League to the Hawks in less than two years. He was the Hawks’ second-round pick (No. 43 overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, and he caught a quick glimpse of his dream last season with two regular-season games and two playoff contests.
Yet it wasn’t until this year that Saad truly earned those stripes at the bottom of his sweater.
Saad made the Hawks’ opening roster but started the regular season as a healthy scratch. After Daniel Carcillo was injured in the first game, Saad joined the lineup.
He hasn’t missed a game since.
Every goal, every assist and every win helps Saad to realize he is old enough to shine.
Part of him knew that all along. Another part of him needed a good start to make sure.
“I think to play at this level, a lot of guys have confidence,” Saad said. “But for pucks to go in and to produce offensively – it’s something that when you do it, you know you can do it.”
What’s less certain is whether Saad might win the Calder Trophy at the end of the season. Eight players in franchise history have won the award, including Tony Esposito in 1970, Steve Larmer in 1983, Ed Belfour in 1991 and Patrick Kane in 2008.
Saad embraces the possibility of being named the league’s rookie of the year.
“Yeah. I mean, who knows?” Saad said. “It’s for them to decide.
“But really, it’s focused on finishing off the season well and playing well in the playoffs. Individual stuff is always nice, but it’s team goals we’re going for in the end.”
As Saad said, who knows? Maybe the Hawks will win a championship, and he can drink from the Stanley Cup.
Hopefully, it’s filled with Coca-Cola Zero.
• Shaw Media sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.