Brandon Saad's potential impact on Ryan Johansen and the Blue Jackets

Brandon Saad could make a huge impact for the Columbus Blue Jackets. (USATSI)
Brandon Saad could make a huge impact for the Columbus Blue Jackets. (USATSI)

A lot of players change teams during the NHL offseason, and some moves are bigger than others. Throughout the offseason we're going to take a closer look at some of the bigger moves that were made and what sort of impact those players might have on their new teams. This is new faces in new places. Today, we look at Brandon Saad going to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Coming off of what was just the second playoff appearance in franchise history, expectations were at an all-time high for the Columbus Blue Jackets entering the 2014-15 season. Especially after landing Scott Hartnell from in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for R.J. Umberger. He was just another solid player joining a team that seemed to be on the rise.

But almost immediately things went south for the Blue Jackets, almost entirely due to a constant run of injuries that helped put the team in an early season hole it would never be able to get out of, even as they finished on a 15-2-1 run and ended up with only one less win than the previous year. 

If there was any kind of silver lining for the Blue Jackets it was the fact that when they were healthy, they were very good and looked an awful lot like the team everybody expected them to be at the start of the season. Even though the defense might still need a bit of work, they have a young cornerstone in center Ryan Johansen, a deep group of forwards, and one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. 

That is going to give any team a chance.

They also made one of the biggest trades of the offseason when they landed Brandon Saad from the Chicago Blackhawks as part of a seven-player trade that saw Columbus send Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, Jeremy Morin and Corey Tropp the other way.

It was a shocking deal because Saad had been viewed as cornerstone player in Chicago and part of their next wave of talent that had come through the system. In his first three years in the league he had been a top-line player on two Stanley Cup winning teams, and even though he was in line for a huge raise, it still seemed as if the Blackhawks would find a way to make it work even with their difficult salary cap situation. 

But given their cap situation there was just no way they could afford to match the six-year, $36 million price tag Columbus ended up offering, and rather than risk losing Saad for nothing but draft picks as the threat of a restricted free agent offer sheet loomed, they dealt him for a couple of players that can help the team over the next few seasons and rebuild their depth.

Now that Saad is in Columbus, he is ready to start a new chapter in his career. One where he is no longer the young, up-and-coming player on an otherwise star-studded roster that wins championships, but is instead going to be expected to be one of the top guys on a team that is looking to get back into the postseason. It's going to be a great measuring stick to see just how good Saad really is.

Through the first three years of his career he's averaged 50 points per 82 games, top-line production in the NHL, and has done all of that before celebrating his 23rd birthday. When you consider that the peak scoring years for players tend to fall between age 24 and 26, his best days are, in theory, still ahead of him and he should still have room to improve. But he's also been put into some very favorable positions at this point in his career, especially when it comes to his linemates.

Who a player plays alongside matters, and it can have a significant impact on their production, and it's almost impossible to find a young player in the NHL in recent years that has had a better environment to grow in than Saad with the Blackhawks. The majority of his ice-time during 5-on-5 play throughout his career has come alongside two future Hall of Famers in Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, two of the best all-around players in the NHL. Togther, they dominated. When that trio was on the ice for the Blackhawks over the past three years they controlled 60 percent of the total shot attempts and outscored their opponents by a 46-23 margin. Nobody could stop them. Nobody could score on them. 

The challenge when it comes to evaluating Saad and figuring out what he is capable of in Columbus is figuring out how much of that success was him, and how much of it was simply the result of having two great players on the ice with him. To help do that, we can look at how much Saad's production -- and his team's -- changed when he wasn't on the ice with them, and how he did with other players on the Blackhawks as his linemates. Not surprisingly, the numbers dropped a little, but he was still a 53 percent possession player and the team still outscored its opponents.

Perhaps even more encouraging is the fact that every player Saad has seen meaningful playing time with has seen an increase in their production (both in terms of possession and goals) when on the ice with him. Part of that is because Saad was consistently one of the Blackhawks' best players when it came to entering the offensive zone with control of the puck and is a huge weapon coming through the neutral zone. His skill, confidence with the puck, and ability to beat opposing defenders one-on-one is an often times overlooked skill when it comes to creating offense.

I think in some ways expectations for what Saad is capable of might be a little too high. He's probably not going to be the type of player that scores 35-or 40-goals, or finishes with 80-or 90-points in a season. He wasn't anything close to that even when playing next to guys like Toews and Hossa, and even though he is still likely to get better I'm not sure he is going to get that much better. What he will do is a lot of the other things, from regaining control of the puck to establishing possession in the offensive zone, that will help his teammates and linemates be those types of players.

He might not always be the player that actually puts the puck in the net, or even ends up with an assist on the play, but he is going to be a big reason that his teammates are in a position to score and rack up points. 

And there is a ton of value in that. 

That skill could be a huge addition to Columbus, especially if he plays on a line -- as expected -- with Johansen who is already one of the most productive players in the league under the age of 23. With all apologies to the likes of Nick Foligno and Scott Hartnell, very good players that regularly saw time on his wings this past season, Johansen really hasn't had a player that good in those areas in his career.

As Johansen continues to enter his prime years in the league -- like Saad, he is still yet to turn 23 -- and is coming off of a huge 71-point season, the potential is there for Columbus to have a fanastic top-line duo that can be a nightmare matchup for just about any other defensive pairing in the league. And it's because of that duo that the Blue Jackets have a great opportunity to get back to the postseason. 

[Data in this post via Puckalytics, Hockey Analysis, and JenLC13]

CBS Sports Writer

Adam Gretz has been writing about the NHL and taking an analytical approach to the game since the start of the 2008 season. A member of the PHWA since 2015, he has spent more than three years covering... Full Bio

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