Blackhawks

Breaking down Brandon Saad's struggles and why he's due for a big bounce-back season with Blackhawks

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USA TODAY

Breaking down Brandon Saad's struggles and why he's due for a big bounce-back season with Blackhawks

Brandon Saad's homecoming didn't exactly go as planned.

He compiled 35 points, his fewest since totaling 27 during his rookie campaign in 2012-13, tallied only 15 goals in 81 games following a hat trick on Opening Night and finished with a career-low 7.6 shooting percentage

What happened?

"It's something where maybe I was gripping the stick too tight, thinking about it too much," Saad admitted at the end of the season. "Other games maybe just puck luck. I think there are still some positives you can take out of the season and some things I did well. Just fine-tuning a couple things and a few details should be back on track to go."

It's especially hard to swallow for Chicago fans when you look at the season Artemi Panarin had in Columbus, where he set a Blue Jackets record for most points in a single season (82).

But Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman reiterated that that trade specifically was made with the bigger picture in mind, considering Saad had four years left on his deal when the trade was completed compared to Panarin, who had two and is due for a hefty pay raise next summer the Blackhawks simply couldn't afford.

"It's hard to judge a trade just on one year," Bowman said. "I think that's a little bit unfair to Brandon to say that. Obviously his numbers were down this year in terms of number of points he had. But we were never trying to replace Artemi's points with Brandon's points. They're different players.

"Brandon actually did a lot of good things on the ice. He really did have a strong season in a lot of ways that don't show up on the scoresheet, but there's no question that his production was down. We're looking for that to rebound. But I think he did a lot of underlying things which were really good."

That's accurate. Saad was among the NHL's best in just about every advanced statistical category.

When he was on the ice at 5-on-5, the Blackhawks controlled 56.04 percent of the shot attempts. That percentage ranked 16th among forwards who logged at least 200 minutes, according to naturalstattrick.com.

And of the 15 skaters ahead of him, only one of them was on the ice for more scoring chances for and that's Panarin. It certainly helped that each of them had the most offensive zone starts among those players, with Saad at 426 and Panarin at 492.

But Saad's shooting percentage at 5-on-5 came in at 6.68, by far a career low after averaging 8.93 going into the season. It'd be surprising if there wasn't a market correction there next season.

"When he was on the ice, our team had a lot of chances," Bowman said. "His conversion rate was just really low this year. We look at that as more of an anomoly. We think he's going to get back to his normal production."

It also didn't help that Saad had a PDO of 97.7, a metric that combines on-ice shooting percentage and save percentage. Sea level is usually at 100, and his on-ice save percentage at 5-on-5 was 91.02, which suggests he wasn't geting many breaks on the defensive side of things, either.

Still, there's no excusing the fact that Saad's numbers must improve next season for the Blackhawks to get back on track.

"As individuals he's one guy that we're going to need more from him going forward," Joel Quenneville said. "We think he adds that element where he can make a difference on a line on a game-to-game basis where that line would be dangerous and absorb the other team's attention. His production should be up."

Marian Hossa scored just 13 goals in 64 games in 2015-16 and had a career-low shooting percentage of 6.8. A year later at age 38, he doubled his goal total (26) in 73 games and converted on 15.6 percent of his shots.

There's no reason to not expect a similar bounce-back from Saad.

"Obviously this isn't the year that we wanted," Saad said. "But it's not like I'm lacking confidence going into next year. I think I'm very capable of being a leader this team and helping us get back in the playoffs.

Why Vinnie Hinostroza has been a hidden gem for Blackhawks

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Why Vinnie Hinostroza has been a hidden gem for Blackhawks

When looking back on the 2017-18 season, it's easy to single out Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz as the two most notable silver linings for the Blackhawks, both of whom showed real promise as important pieces going forward.

But lost in the shuffle — or quietly flying under the radar — has been Vinnie Hinostroza, in part because he started the year in the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs when he probably didn't deserve to.

"Obviously I wanted to start off the year here, but going down there, I knew that if I played well I'd be back up here and that's what they told me leaving camp," Hinostroza said. "I got to go down there, play a lot of minutes, play in every situation. I learned a lot and I think it helped my game."

It was perhaps more-so a numbers game, and Hinostroza was a guy the Blackhawks could send to Rockford without having to go through the waiver process. It also wasn't the worst thing for his long-term development.

Not surprisingly, Hinostroza flourished with the IceHogs by averaging nearly a point-per-game with nine goals and 13 assists in 23 games. He was more than ready to be promoted.

It just took a while because the Blackhawks were carrying the maximum amount of skaters (23) and there weren't any injuries to open up a spot.

Eventually, the Blackhawks decided they couldn't ignore his offensive production any longer and placed Tanner Kero on waivers — which he cleared — to make room for Hinostroza, who was recalled on Dec. 8.

And when he finally got his chance with the big club, Hinostroza took advantage.

He set career-highs in all three scoring categories with seven goals and 18 assists for 25 points in 50 games despite having only two points in the final 15 contests.

The underlying numbers supported his value, too.

When Hinostroza was on the ice at even strength, the Blackhawks controlled 54.57 percent of the shot attempts and had a high-danger Goals For percentage of 58.33, according to naturalstattrick.com.

He also had a points-per-60 minutes rate of 1.98 during 5-on-5 play; only Patrick Kane had a higher one (2.16) on the Blackhawks.

Hinostroza did all this while bouncing around from the first line to the fourth line, meaning it gave Joel Quenneville the luxury to put him anywhere and expect his offensive production to stay the same. His versatility in that sense, along with being able to play any of the three forward positions, makes him a valuable piece of this club.

The Blackhawks know that, and envision him as part of the long-term picture. Not bad for the Bartlett native who was taken in the sixth round (169th overall) in 2012 by his hometown team.

"I want to make it clear our No. 1 priority as we move forward is to make sure we can keep these young players — DeBrincat and Schmaltz and Hinostroza and some other young players that are going to maybe join our team over the next year or two," GM Stan Bowman said. "That's the direction that we're headed, and we want those guys to be Blackhawks and to take a bigger role."

Patrick Sharp to serve as guest NHL analyst for NBC Sports' Stanley Cup Playoff coverage

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Patrick Sharp to serve as guest NHL analyst for NBC Sports' Stanley Cup Playoff coverage

Despite announcing his retirement from the NHL this season, Patrick Sharp insisted he's not going anywhere.

And he won't be.

The three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Blackhawks will be serving as a guest analyst on NHL Live tonight and Wednesday during NBC Sports' first-round Stanley Cup Playoff coverage, appearing on the pregame show at 5:30 p.m., breaking down the intermissions of Blue Jackets vs. Capitals and Jets vs. Wild.

Sharp will join Liam McHugh, Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick for Columbus-Washington and Kathryn Tappen, Anson Carter and Roenick for Winnipeg-Minnesota.

Perhaps we're seeing a little glimpse of what Sharp's future post-playing career could hold?