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Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad scores from third

Updated: November 4, 2013 12:18PM



He has played on a line with two future Hall of Famers. He has played on a checking unit against some of the best lines in the world. He has played in the glaring spotlight of the Stanley Cup Final. He has played on the power play, and he has played on the penalty kill. He has handled a prolonged scoring slump, and he has ridden a monthlong hot streak. And through one game this season, he’s on pace for 246 points.

And Brandon Saad still is a little more than three weeks shy of being able to buy a drink.

Saad’s teammates dubbed him the ‘‘Man-child” last season for looking, acting and playing older than his 20 years. And after navigating through his rookie season and handling everything that was thrown at him, Saad is starting to feel like a veteran already. And that goes beyond just knowing whom to ask for new equipment or where to find a nice meal on the road.

“I’m feeling more comfortable coming into this year; it’s definitely different,” said Saad, a surprise to even come out of camp last season on the NHL roster. “You know everyone around you, and you know the systems, and there’s no excuses.”

Saad spent most of last season on a line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa but wound up swapping spots with third-line left wing Bryan Bickell for much of the playoffs. He only had one goal and five assists in the postseason but proved to be an effective defensive-minded winger on a checking line with Andrew Shaw and Viktor Stalberg. With Stalberg now in Nashville, big Jimmy Hayes — a Bickell-esque power forward — joins the third line.

And while Saad knows his role is different now than it was when he was on the top line, he sees no reason why he can’t continue to be a productive scorer from his new spot. While he’ll draw some tough defensive assignments at home, he’s likely to face some easier matchups on the road as opposing coaches focus their top checkers on the Bickell-Toews-Patrick Kane line.

It helps that there’s some built-in chemistry on the third line. Not only did Saad and Shaw play together in the playoffs, Saad and Hayes played together in Rockford during the lockout last season. All three have a nose for the net, so Saad (who had 10 goals and 17 assists last season) still expects to score.

“We want to check off the first goal of playing well defensively, but we’ve got some skilled guys on our line, and we’re looking to produce, as well,” Saad said. “[We can] be that difference-maker out there. You always expect the top two lines to do it, but if we can chip in and help the team, that’s what’s going to make us successful.”

Saad, who took nine games to score his first goal last season despite generating myriad chances, wasted no time this season. He had a goal and two assists in the Hawks’ 6-4 victory Tuesday over the Washington Capitals in the season opener. He had an assist on the power play, the game-tying goal at the end of a long shift after his linemates went off for a change and the primary assist on Johnny Oduya’s game-winner.

“Nice to get off to a good start,” Saad said.

That versatility and veteran poise prompted coach Joel Quenneville to try Saad at center on the second line during camp. Saad was out of sorts in a role he had never played but threw himself into the assignment and picked Toews’ brain for advice on positioning, responsibilities and faceoffs. Quenneville abandoned the experiment midway through the preseason but has that option in his back pocket should the need arise.

“He gives us some versatility,” Quenneville said. “We can put him in a lot of different places as the game goes on. . . . One-on-one, he’s as good as any young kid in the league.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkLazerus



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