Can Brandon Saad Be the Next Marian Hossa?

Brandon Saad, the player who may well have been left off Team USA’s 2014 roster because T.J. Oshie has “that shootout move,” has had a terrific sophomore campaign to date. With  points in 59 games, he has produced like a quality top-6 forward despite spending a considerable extent of the 2013-14 season in the bottom 6. Saad’s defensive game is decidedly above average, and he has been a significant contributor to Chicago’s improving penalty kill. This level of acumen at both ends of the ice in a 21 year-old forward is not a frequent sight; indeed, such a characterization distinguished another current Blackhawk when he was Saad’s age: Marian Hossa. The comparisons between the two are not uncommon, and given Hossa’s present status as perhaps the single best two-way winger in the NHL, the mere discussion is certainly strong praise for Chicago’s #20.

There is, of course, little of interest in the simple affirmation that “Saad is a young Hossa” with no argumentative basis behind it. So let’s take a step beyond that and juxtapose the two players directly, and in the process decide for ourselves if Saad truly deserves to be held in such high regard.


Comparison: Brandon Saad and Marian Hossa’s Rookie Seasons

For reference…
Brandon Saad’s 2012-13 stat line: 46 games, 10 goals, 17 assists, 27 points, +17.
Marian Hossa’s 1998-1999 stat line: 60 games, 15 goals, 15 assists, 30 points, +18.

Their production is eerily similar at face value. Saad compiled points at a higher per-game clip than Hossa (0.587 vs. 0.5). However, we need to put these numbers into context; Saad had the benefit of tremendous linemates during his rookie season (incidentally, one of whom was Hossa), and also played 2 and a half more minutes per contest. If we adjust our scoring numbers to be per-60 minutes, Saad no longer has the edge (2.141 vs. 2.145).

Brandon Saad Blackhawks
Many believe Brandon Saad is Chicago’s best bet to eventually replace the on-ice presence of 35 year-old Marian Hossa (David Banks-USA TODAY Sports)

Thus, Saad and Hossa’s scoring rates in their rookie seasons are almost exactly the same. As mentioned, Saad had the superior linemates, but being a member of Chicago’s #1 line with Toews and (older) Hossa also entailed facing the opposition’s best defensive players every night – a factor often forgotten in this type of discussion, and something that ’98-99 Hossa did not have to deal with. It is essentially impossible to precisely quantify the impact of these various internal factors, but for our purposes it is most sensible to simply let them be. We can reasonably state that Saad and Hossa were by all available measures quite comparable in terms of offensive performance during their rookie seasons.

Defensive play is much more difficult to put into numbers – especially in light of the lack of Corsi data prior to 2007-08 – so we are forced to rely on imperfect proxies such as comparative +/-. We are remarkably lucky, however, in that ’12-13 Chicago and ’98-99 Ottawa had similar goal differentials (“similar” again – noticing a theme?).

Saad’s +/- of 17 slotted him in at 4th on his team. If you guessed that rookie Hossa would be similar, you’re correct – his +18 was tied for third-highest on that particular Senators roster.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to go much further than that. Some may note that Saad was used on the penalty kill and Hossa was not, but this could just as easily be attributable to coaching preferences as it could be to actual defensive competence. We thus are forced to leave our statistical analysis incomplete.

Of course, that does not preclude using the eye test, which 2012-13 Saad graded out very well on. Joel Quenneville clearly agrees – he has limited the ice time of Brandon Pirri and Jeremy Morin in 2013-14 because of (as he perceives it) defensive deficiencies. That never occurred with Saad the year prior.

Taken as a whole, Hossa/Saad is a very fair comparison based purely on their rookie campaigns; the two players were close to identical. Let’s see if this carries over to their sophomore seasons.


Comparison: Brandon Saad and Marian Hossa’s Sophomore Seasons

For reference…
Brandon Saad’s 2013-14 stat line: 59 games, 18 goals, 22 assists, 40 points, +22.
Marian Hossa’s 1999-00 stat line: 78 games, 29 goals, 27 assists, 56 points, +5.

Hossa saw a jump in ice time during his second season, playing approximately an extra minute per game more than ’13-14 Saad. Based on time distributions, it appears that sophomore Hossa had reasonably good second line talent to work with, while sophomore Saad has vacillated in and out of Chicago’s top-6. We can safely nix this as a factor – if there is a difference in linemate quality in either direction, it would seem to be fairly small.

As before, converting to points/60 minutes elicits an essentially identical number for both Saad and Hossa (2.49 vs. 2.50, respectively). Looking a bit deeper, though, we get a reminder that not all ice time is created equal as far as scoring opportunities are concerned: 1999-00 Hossa averaged 1 more minute on the powerplay and 1 less minute on the penalty kill than 2013-14 Saad has. Thus, Saad has managed to equal sophomore Hossa’s production despite being deployed in a distinctly less offensive-oriented role.

Defensively, Saad fares a bit better than Hossa in terms of comparative +/- (4th vs 7th). He has also maintained fantastic possession numbers despite playing most of the ’13-14 season with relatively unremarkable linemates. Meanwhile, Hossa was (and is) the better backchecker of the two, and likely always will be simply due to superior skating ability.

There is one other metric that I found telling, one which only furthers the striking overall similarity between the two. At the NHL level, Saad has displayed a conspicuous knack for takeaways – generally a skill that the league’s best defensive players possess. This is a very promising development in the context of this comparison. You may have heard of the player who currently leads the league in this stat.

In sum, Saad and Hossa’s sophomore seasons are every bit as congruent as their rookie years.


Reaching a Conclusion: Can Brandon Saad Be the Next Marian Hossa?

Short answer? Yes.

Long answer? The first two NHL seasons for the duo are similar to such a ridiculous degree that I have to immediately question anybody who does not acknowledge that this discussion has substantial merit. There is nothing to suggest that Saad cannot one day be near or on the level of Hossa at his zenith.

Whether or not that occurs, however, is quite a different question. When it comes to player development, speaking in absolutes is impractical; there are far too many variables and potentialities involved to definitively predict career paths. Such is the case outside of the hockey world as well. Predicting the future is no easy business.

But does Saad have the ability? Can he eventually have a comparable two-way presence to Hossa, one of the best wingers to ever don a Blackhawks jersey?

I don’t see why not.

Follow Sean Sarcu on Twitter: @seansarcu