Highly-touted Pittsburgh kid Brandon Saad discusses his NHL dream

Last evening in Peterborough, Ontario, left wing Brandon Saad continued a busy week, playing in his fourth straight game and his Ontario Hockey League club, the Saginaw Spirit, won 6-1 over the host Petes.  Saad played against the Plymouth Whalers on Monday then took part in the Home Hardware CHL/NHL Skills Competition and Prospects Game on Tuesday and Wednesday in Toronto.  Saginaw plays in Ottawa tonight and quite likely, Saad will suit up for a fifth consecutive contest.  Saginaw has an 8-point lead over its competition in the Western Conference of the OHL and Saad is a major contributor to their standing.

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The 18-year old native of Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, 30 minutes north of Pittsburgh, co-leads Saginaw with 11 power play goals, is second on the club with 23 total goals and fourth with 43 points in 41 games.  During the Skills Competition on Tuesday evening, Saad participated in the “Showdown Breakaway” contest, trying a between-the-legs move in one of his two attempts.  Later that night, he capped a Team Orr rally when he scored a game-tying breakaway goal with 7:02 left in regulation in the 3-on-3 contest.

Saad is the 8th-best North American skater in the latest NHL Central Scouting Rankings and could become the highest-drafted Pittsburgh-area player ever this June.  He spoke with Hockey Independent after the Skills Competition on Tuesday.

HI: Your birthday is October 27, 1992.  On that day, the Penguins won 7-2 against Ottawa and Mario Lemieux scored 2 goals.  Who were some of your favourite Penguins growing up?

Brandon Saad: Definitely [Mario Lemieux].  I didn’t get to see too much of him, but Lemieux and Jagr and obviously now Crosby, Malkin and Staal, guys like that.  They’re my favourites, being able to watch them these days.

HI: When you grew up watching hockey and the Pens, was there someone who you tried to model your game after?

Brandon Saad: Probably Jaromir Jagr.  I liked the way he used his size and skill and shot.  I think I modelled a little bit after him but unfortunately I didn’t see too much of him growing up because he wasn’t playing when I got older and I didn’t get to watch him, but watching him when I was younger was nice.

HI: Was he kind of the inspiration for playing the wing as opposed to another position?

Brandon Saad: No, actually.  I started off on defence when I was younger and I just moved to forward eventually and stuck with it.

HI: Your dad played soccer?

Brandon Saad: Yes.

HI: When you were younger were you exposed to other sports like soccer or did you just fall in love with hockey?

Brandon Saad: Yes.  I fell in love with hockey obviously, but I played all these sports, pretty much everything I’d say.  With hockey, I wanted to make it a career so I stuck with one sport because I loved it and had the most fun with it so that’s why I stuck with it.

HI: Who were some of your influences playing hockey whether it was a coach or parent or volunteer?

Brandon Saad: I had a lot of good coaches growing up, but definitely I think of the sacrifice my parents made, obviously with hockey being expensive and taking me to the rink all the time.  Also my brother played so I got to stick beside him and play on a lot of teams with him which was a lot of fun.

HI: You played a bit in the U.S. National Team Development Program.  They emphasize a lot of skill development, having that schedule where you’re always playing against good competition.  How did you find that experience because, you played in the USHL as well.  How was that?

Brandon Saad: Last year it was a good experience definitely.  I think the Program and the things we go through with them with the off-ice and on-ice, constantly every day, working hard [helped].  I think it’s definitely a good thing for you and it built me up physically and mentally and obviously, winning the gold medal with them overseas last year (at the 2010 IIHF World U-18 Championship) was definitely another thing that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.

HI: How did you make the decision to come play in Ontario and the OHL versus the U.S. collegiate route which is a route that American-born players often take?

Brandon Saad: I would have had to stay another year in the USHL before I went to college and instead of waiting I wanted to make it to the NHL as quick as possible.  I figured the CHL, especially the OHL, has produced a lot of the top prospects.  That was the route I wanted to go to make a career.

HI: Do you get back to Pittsburgh often?

Brandon Saad: We get a couple scheduled times, 4 or 5 times a year, and then summers I live at home so I get to have that.

HI: Because I’m thinking of players that have come from the Pittsburgh area like Ryan Malone, R.J. Umberger, Bill Thomas, Nate Guenin.  When you saw them make it to the NHL, locally, it was obviously big news.  Though Pittsburgh isn’t a hotbed for producing players, did it motivate you to try even harder?

Brandon Saad: Yeah, definitely.  I think you see guys in the NHL, to have guys from your hometown, living nearby and able to make it, you definitely see that and think, ‘It’s possible’, and you’re able to do it.  I think definitely it’s a little bit of a motivator added on to obviously wanting to play there.

HI: Tonight, the game-tying breakaway goal.  How did that feel?  You know you guys came back from a pretty big deficit in the 2nd period.

Brandon Saad: Exactly.  We were down a lot.  We started scoring some goals early on there.  Our line figured we should try to get the “tie-er” (tying goal) out there and luckily, I think, there was a deflected shot then I got a pass from (Vince) Trocheck.  I just ended up scoring.  It felt good to tie the game and to win it in the shootout was nice.

Note: Vince Trocheck, Saad’s Saginaw teammate, is also from Pittsburgh and began playing in the OHL one year before Saad.

HI: Absolutely.  Now speaking of Trocheck, did you play against him in minor hockey in Pittsburgh?  Did you know of him?

Brandon Saad: We knew of each other but we never played together.  We used to play on different teams, different organizations for a little bit and then he ended up moving to Michigan.  We kept in touch knowing I got drafted by Saginaw and [now we're] playing together this year so it’s been good.

HI: After tonight and tomorrow with the actual Prospects Game, have the coaches, Doug Gilmour or Wendel Clark, told you anything to take away from this whole experience?

Brandon Saad: Nothing really.  Just to have fun out there and enjoy it.  There’s a lot of talented players and a lot of people watching but just come, play the game like you do, and have fun.

HI: Finally, what skills are you looking to improve throughout the rest of this season as you enter the draft?

Brandon Saad: I think all areas of my game.  I’m going to work hard all over and finish off a good season with a good team in Saginaw so I just need to keep working hard and the rest of the things will fall into place.

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About the Author: Adrian Fung (@PenguinsMarch) contributes game reports, opinions, analysis and features, mostly about the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has covered the World Hockey Summit, Kraft Hockeyville, World Junior Championship exhibition games, CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, MasterCard Memorial Cup and NHL Rookie Tournament for Hockey Independent. twitter.com/PenguinsMarch

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