You’re now flipping through the Puck Daddy Notebook. This series will run somewhat sporadically, as it requires scrubbing something stimulating from the minds of NHL players and coaches. This may or may not have been accomplished here.
When Stan Bowman dealt a dynamo in Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets to bring back Brandon Saad, two years after adding him to the never-ending list of cap casualties with the Chicago Blackhawks, the hockey world was reduced to guesswork.
Perhaps not the oddest move (that’s probably reserved for the Conor Murphy-Niklas Hjalmarsson swap), but definitely the defining transaction in a puzzling summer for the Blackhawks, who seemed to enter hysterics after being swept in the opening round versus the eventual Western Conference champion Nashville Predators.
But once the dust settled and we unpacked the deals, many arrived at this conclusion: Trading for Saad was merely a tactic in cost control. Both wingers are capable 30-goal scorers with identical salaries. But the difference is that Saad is under contract for four more seasons, as opposed to Panarin’s two. Likewise, Murphy has five seasons remaining on his contract compared to the two left on Hjalmarsson’s deal.
Two, in this case, is a trend.
Further, taking into account that only six players counted more points than Panarin in his two seasons riding shotgun with Patrick Kane, there was every reason to believe that the shifty Russian would have significant leverage in future negotiations and would ultimately price himself out of Chicago, anyway. The opportunity was there for the Blackhawks to eliminate some risk, and they took it.
But chatting with members of the Blackhawks during their stop in Toronto this week seemed to suggest a different reason: the struggles of their captain.
While Kane and Panarin lit the world on fire offensively, it was Jonathan Toews frustrated by his worst two seasons from a per-game production standpoint. He needed help, and it was determined that for it all to work in a world where their pillars earn a combined $21 million, it was Toews that needed high-priced scoring help on the wing, while Kane would be left to elevate others.
“That line, last year, wasn’t what it was in all the other years,” said coach Joel Quenneville, almost radiating his relief in his scrum.
“We always loved Saad, and what he brought. His speed off the rush and how quick he was to loose pucks. He can beat coverage to the net. Got a quick stick and a nice set of hands. Saad was always a big difference maker in games with his speed, backing off the defence. In playoff series we felt he was a factor in a lot of games and rounds,” he said.
“It’s been fun watching him play with Johnny again. Just happy to have him back because he’s got a different pace that’s enhanced our team.”
Saad has five goals in as many games for the 3-1-1 Blackhawks while Toews has registered at least a point in each game so far. And to no surprise to the captain, Saad appears to have returned a better player than what he was before his trade to the Blue Jackets.
“I’ve always said that about him, even in his rookie season, he had all the skill in the world but he was one of those guys that was working to improve. He was looking better every right because he had that hunger to go out there and be one of the guys that’s relied upon. I don’t see that slowing down.”
Admittedly, there’s an element of interpretation here. Neither Toews nor Quenneville would ever admit the Saad deal was made with this shift in top-six dynamics in mind. But Toews’ satisfaction continued to come up in conversations – including during one with Kane.
“That line has been dominant the first couple games,” Kane said when asked about Toews’ start. “They have been creating a lot, scoring a lot goals. That’s big. I’m sure he’s happy with his linemates.”
To Kane’s credit, he seemed to be over the loss of Panarin and genuinely excited about the chemistry he had with Nick Schmaltz in training camp.
And more importantly, his production has stayed level so far.
Out for revenge?
We did ask Kane if the “Blackhawks Revenge Tour” was something that had legs. He shot that down pretty quick saying, “we’re not thinking about that in here.” But he did express, even despite the loss of his pal Panarin, that the Blackhawks seemed tighter a group this season.
Toews identified the returns of Saad and Patrick Sharp for helping create a positive atmosphere after last season’s forgettable postseason showing.
“It’s been a good vibe, good feeling in our locker room. As it should be with the start we’ve had. Those two guys are going to be a big part of it down the road. It’s nice to have them not only come back here, but helping out with a lot of the new faces in the room.”
Who is Jesper Bratt?
Not unlike any season, there’s been a rise to prominence that has come as a surprise to everyone outside the locker room to which he belongs.
This year’s candidate is Jesper Bratt, who emerged from relative obscurity with three goals – included one on the power play and one shorthanded – while counting five total points in two games as a sit-in for Kyle Palmieri on the top line of the undefeated New Jersey Devils.
Palmieri said this of Bratt before his resuming his role on the top line opposite Taylor Hall versus the Leafs on Wednesday.
“He’s a really good player. Obviously one of those things, he came out of nowhere in camp. Not many guys or media knew who he was. But I got a chance to see him in a couple of the rookie (events) and in the first couple days of camp he stood out – probably more than anybody.
“He’s continued that play. Hopefully he keeps it going for us. He’s been a big part of our team.”
Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Matthew Tkachuk and Jakob Chychrun (each lottery selections) are the only players from the 2016 NHL Draft currently with more goals at the NHL level than Bratt, who was plucked off the board at No. 162.
For a player with options in the American Hockey League and with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, it might be imperative that Bratt continues on this run.
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