TAMPA, Fla. - Brandon Saad looked up to Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr as a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, but Chicago Blackhawks teammate Jonathan Toews couldn't help but chuckle that Saad is young enough to idolize Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, too.
It's almost absurd that Saad wasn't born yet when Lemieux and Jagr won back-to-back Stanley Cups and was in his mid-teens when Crosby and Malkin went to two straight finals.
He hadn't even been drafted when this Blackhawks group won in 2010, and since he has gone from being a young role player to a key piece of Chicago's championship core.
"When he came into the league, he was always pushing himself every night," Toews said Wednesday night after Saad scored the winner in Game 4 of the Cup final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. "He was assuming more responsibility, whether it was scoring goals or playing two-way hockey.
"He just keeps showing that. I think he just assumes that responsibility, and he wants to be one of the best players."
The Blackhawks' core during this run of success is made up of Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Those players all won the Cup twice and are in their third final in six years.
Three years ago against Boston, Saad was part of the supporting cast of young players the organization fostered, along with Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger. The youngest player on that 2013 championship team is now a first-liner who could be in the Toews/Kane stratosphere sooner rather than later.
"When I first saw him this year, I didn't know he was that good," veteran forward Brad Richards said. "But he's way better now even than he was in September. Just growing up and getting confident. So powerful.
"I've never seen such a young kid so even-keel."
Part of the process to get from fresh-faced rookie to consistent contributor is the Blackhawks' foundation. Coach Joel Quenneville counts on Toews, Kane and Keith to show Saad, Shaw and now players like Teuvo Teravainen how to prepare and work in the NHL.
"It's mostly the captain here," Saad said, referring to Toews sitting next to him. "You watch and learn the way he plays and competes. His passion out there is bar none. He's a special player to learn from."
Saad is only 22, so his learning isn't over. And even though he's a restricted free agent this summer who 29 other teams would probably love to get their hands on, he's not going anywhere.
Chicago general manager Stan Bowman has shown a deft ability to navigate the salary cap and make difficult choices along the way. Saad's next contract could push someone like Bryan Bickell or Patrick Sharp out the door, but that's just part of the reality in a cap world.
Saad is a long-term piece of the future but has been key to this run, too.
His Game 4 winner was a heads-up play and show of power and awareness, and his ability to create offence allows Quenneville to split up Toews and Kane and balance out the top six perfectly.
"Obviously, he's just gotten better and better over the years," Keith said. "He had a great playoff last year and he's been a huge part of our team this year. ...
"We need him to just keep doing what he's doing."
The Cup final is tied at 2 going into Game 5 Saturday at Tampa Bay
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