Hockey

Pictures of Matchstick Men – ’19–’20 Blackhawks Player Previews – Brandon Saad

Few people hold Brandon Saad’s jock like I do. Today, I’m going to try something different. Rather than going all in on how THIS WILL BE THE YEAR THE REAL BRANDON SAAD APPEARS, I’m going to try to figure out where the latent angst about Saad exists, despite all the good he does on paper.

2018–19 Stats

80 GP – 23 G, 24 A, 47 P

52.69 CF% (5.1 CF% Rel), 49.9 oZS%

47.06 GF% (-2.97 Rel GF%), 47.27 xGF% (2.61 Rel xGF%)

Avg. TOI 17:41

Last Year’s Saad Review

A Brief History: Let’s start with the easy shit. Saad’s 23 goals and 47 points are right about in line with what he’s shown he can do in his career. His 24 assists were down a hair relative to his career numbers. His shooting percentage jumped back toward his norm (11.8% last year; 11.1% career). Those are excellent numbers for a third liner, which is how Colliton used Saad primarily last year. But when you trade a guy like Artemi Panarin, you expect more than a third liner in return.

The topline numbers place Saad in second-liner territory. It’s those pesky underlying numbers that make Saad a flashpoint of frustration. Of Blackhawks who played at least 41 games, Saad had the best CF% (52.69) and CF% Rel (5.1). (If you include Sikura [33 games] and Jokiharju [38 games], he’s third overall in both.)

Here’s how he affects the Hawks in terms of the shots the Hawks take when he is and isn’t on the ice.

All Charts by Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath)

The heat map looks even better in when you put Saad in isolation.

Simply, the Blackhawks are a much bigger offensive threat with Saad on the ice.

On the defensive side, the numbers aren’t quite as friendly, but the Hawks are still a better defensive team with Saad on the ice than without.

Saad does a good job of keeping shot rates on his side (LW) lower than average when he’s on the ice. When he’s off, that left side opens up, as do the shot rates within higher-danger areas. While Saad clearly couldn’t fix the woeful defense by himself, in isolation, he looks really, really good.

Having Saad on the ice was preferable to not having him on the ice—both on offense and defense—in terms of shot rates at 5v5 last year.

Saad also made almost all of his teammates better when he’s out there at 5v5.

The only players who were marginally worse with Saad than without were Toews and maybe Kampf, and even that’s a stretch. Without Saad, Toews ended up with slightly more shots for than against, but it’s a really thin margin. Without Saad, Kampf saw more shots for, but also more shots against. Everyone else was noticeably better (i.e., took more shots than they faced) with him out there.

Saad’s positive contributions were evident on the penalty kill last year, too. Yes, the Hawks were a potted plant watered with piss on the PK last year, but not because of anything Saad did wrong.

On the PK, the overall threat percentage is better (lower is better on defense) and the area that Saad plays in produces fewer unblocked shots when Saad is on the ice.

This is all the good Saad does. Now, I will gently place Saad’s jock to the side and talk about two things that caught my eye about him in a bad way last year.

First, his performance on the PP, in light of the fact that Colliton’s PP2 does not include Brandon Saad as of now (Keith–Seabrook–Kubalik–Nylander–Shaw).

The Hawks were indeed much, much worse on the PP when Saad was out there. This matches the eye test. Saad is generally a straight-line skater who doesn’t normally go to the front of the net. (He’ll occasionally trapeze along the goal line and put his shoulder down, but it’s relatively rare.) He doesn’t have a booming shot, and he’s not usually one to set up for a one timer. All of these things combined, these heat maps make sense. Saad isn’t much of a threat on the PP. That’s frustrating for sure.

Second, and more interesting to me, are his GF% (47.06) and xGF% (47.27). Saad is on the ice for almost exactly the share of goals expected of him. By themselves, those numbers don’t look good. But in terms of xGF%, only three Blackhawks had a positive share on the year: Dennis Gilbert (1 game played), Slater Koekkoek (22 games played), and Dylan Sikura (33 games played). So, Saad’s expected goals-for share isn’t as bad as it seems, relative to the rest of the team. (For comparison, Kane’s xGF% was 44.93. DeBrincat’s was 46.47.) Still, it’s not something to hang your hat on.

It’s the GF% that’s bothersome. Compare the xGF% and GF% among some of the Hawks’s top-scoring forwards.

Player xGF% (5v5) GF% (5v5)
Kane 44.93 55.63
Toews 47.05 51.67
DeBrincat 46.47 53.66
Strome 43.08 52.43
Saad 47.27 47.06

Of the Hawks’s top-scoring forwards, only Saad’s GF% is lower than his xGF%. When compared to the other top-scoring forwards on the Hawks, Saad’s rates look downright miserable. Every other forward overperformed their expectations last year, whereas Saad did just about what was expected of him by the numbers. And when the expectation isn’t good to start with, meeting that expectation isn’t really great, either.

Even worse, of the 13 non-goalie teammates that Saad played with for more than 100 minutes last year, only three of them (Keith, Seabrook, Jokiharju) had a higher GF% with Saad than without.

I think this is the heart of the angst. Saad never really outperforms what he’s supposed to do in terms of goals. When given the chance to play with guys who do outperform, the stats show that the outperformers do worse with Saad. Though this is only one aspect of his game, it’s a really fucking important one, and comparatively, Saad is lacking.

Saad did many things right last year, but when it comes to the goals-for share, it’s not up to the snuff of other offensive threats. I think that these stats are what manifest the madness about Saad most. What I don’t know is why that is. Is it play style? Motivation? Attitude? It’s hard for me to chalk up his relatively lacking GF% to motivation or attitude, given all the other things he does well. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

It Was the Best of Times: Saad finds a spot on the first line and makes it work with Toews and Kubalik offensively. Saad’s responsible defensive and possession abilities take pressure off Toews, who serves as more of a playmaker for Kubalik’s booming shot. The threat of Toews to Kubalik opens up more ice for Saad (especially if Gustafsson skates with them primarily), and he pots 25 goals and 60 points.

It Was the BLURST of Times: Saad withers away offensively on the third line because David Kampf has never been anything close to a playmaker. The third line gets stuck babysitting Maatta and Seabrook, and because Seabrook, Maatta, and Kampf can do no wrong in Colliton’s eyes, Saad gets crucified for not being everything on both offense and defense. He takes several healthy scratches in favor of Alex Nylander, requests a trade to the Blues, and proceeds to dome the Blackhawks ad infinitum.

Prediction: Saad is going to get crucified by Jeremy Colliton, Pat Foley and Eddie O, and the Brain Trust for being everything but an overperforming goal scorer. We’ll all keep listening to the notes he’s not playing and wishing that possession and shot shares, rather than goals, were what wins games.

Stats from HockeyViz.com, hockey-reference.com, NaturalStatTrick.com, and Corsica.hockey

Previous Previews

Robin Lehner

Corey Crawford

Adam Boqvist

Carl Dahlstrom

Calvin de Haan

Erik Gustafsson

Duncan Keith

Slater Koekkoek

Olli Maatta

Connor Murphy

Drake Caggiula

Ryan Carpenter

Alex DeBrincat

David Kampf

Patrick Kane

Alex Nylander

Brendan Perlini

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