Every week Intelligent Hockey will present a segment entitled “Three Players Who Are Better Than You Think,” focusing on good-to-very-good players who do not receive the proper limelight. This week’s column features three players with upper-crust talent. Do not be surprised if all three look better than their team’s superstars on some nights, and look for one of them in Sochi.
Saad, soon to be 21 years old, is nicknamed “Man-Child” with good reason; the way he plays the game is frighteningly effective for someone who fell to the mid-second round after a disappointing rookie OHL season in the 2011 draft year. Saad had entered his draft year ranking among the top North American skaters in scouting projections, but injuries hampered his play, so he fell, and fell, and fell down the draft board – into the Blackhawks’ lap. And boy, did Chicago get lucky.
Listed as 6’1” on the Blackhawks’ website, Saad certainly looks and plays the game bigger. His strength is evident every time he fights for the puck, or controls the puck, because he overpowers most opponents. At even strength, shots are going heavily in Saad’s and the Blackhawks’ favor to begin the season; his Corsi for is 64.1 percent. Blackhawks’ coach Joel Quenneville trusts Saad — who has shown himself to be a responsible defensive player, too –deploying the Pittsburgh native in the offensive zone only 40.4 percent of the time.
Saad has poise carrying and protecting the puck, and can expose a defenseman’s lack of speed. He uses his physicality and speed on the forecheck to disrupt defensemen and finish his checks, and he is now seeing ice time with the glamour Blackhawks’ forwards: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp. Saad’s increasing presence in Chicago’s offense justifies his being listed in the same breath as those players. He is quickly entering their realm of day-to-day performance, and should be a lock for the Americans’ roster in Sochi.
The former ninth overall New York Islanders’ pick in the 2008 draft has not had the same straightforward ascension as Saad. Bailey experienced peaks and troughs in his career, drafted by a franchise that has been in a malaise for the last two decades. Things are only now beginning to improve – the Islanders made the postseason last year and are leaving the infamous Nassau Coliseum to relocate at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Now 24 years old, Bailey has always shown conspicuous skill – his hands with the puck are high-end, and he is a creative offensive player who can make the near-impossible feed to a cutting teammate. But he suffered growing pains in his first few years in the league because he was a raw product. He did not shoot enough, and there were questions about whether he was a defensively conscious player; was there enough hockey awareness that he could play the two-way game expected of a top-six forward?
On a team that has a very old, vulnerable goaltender and a patchwork defense, having a reliable, quick-strike, high-scoring offense is necessary for the Islanders to stay in games. John Tavares is the unquestioned rock star, but after him there needs to be strong contributions from Matt Moulson, Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, and Bailey. Bailey has been up to the task so far. His Corsi numbers are superb, and it appears the game has slowed down for him — a requisite for above-average forwards in the League.
In the video below, Bailey sags behind as the trailer for Michael Grabner. When Grabner makes the pass, Bailey is able to niftily go from backhand to forehand and shoot it past Khabibulin — all before Chicago Blackhawks’ opponents Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook can obstruct him. The old Bailey would have been in the wrong spot on the ice — too close to Grabner or wrongly positioned near Keith and Seabrook. Now, Bailey patiently waits, collects, and scores.
The footage in the next clip illustrates how good Bailey’s hands are. He is able to slickly carry the puck through two Edmonton Oilers before ripping a shot in the high slot.
Bailey’s 18.8 shooting percentage to begin the 2013-14 season will surely regress, but he has gotten off to a strong start and is poised to be a major asset for the Islanders throughout the year.
The San Jose Sharks have the best record in the League and boast a plus 23 goal differential. They have two of the most underrated but widely respected players in the NHL in Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic; a future Hall of Famer in Joe Thornton; a Vezina Trophy candidate in Antti Niemi; and the effervescent rookie Tomas Hertl.
San Jose possesses blazing speed, elite skill, a top-notch defense, and a dependable goaltender. The Sharks are really, really good.
In addition to being enjoyable to watch, they also have the player in the League closest to an NHL version of Charlie Kelly. Brent Burns, the defenseman-turned-forward, is the biggest wildcard in the League. No one on San Jose appears to know what he is going to do or where he will be positioned on the ice– they just let him do his thing (Burns described it as “Create chaos”). His Chaos Theory happens to be enormously effective.
The 6’5” winger employs energy, and surprising skill and touch to score from the wing. The statistics for Burns are awesome to begin the season, leading the Sharks with a Corsi for of 65.9 percent, and second on the team in Fenwick for, per extraskater.com. Burns’ animalism is uncompromising, and he can sometimes play a little too recklessly (as displayed in the Sharks-Blues tilt ten days ago).
On a San Jose team that has strong defensive depth, and speed and skill at the forward positions, it is the amorphous Burns who carries the joker card. His size allows the Sharks to maintain a bruising physical presence, and his skill makes him a threat to score on any shift. In a sport wrought with uncertainty and randomness, Burns proves to be the biggest unknown. And he is better than you might think.