Pittsburgh-area products Brandon Saad, J.T. Miller and John Gibson could each accomplish what only one other local hockey player has done before: become a first-round pick in the NHL draft. (The only other time that happened was back in 2001, when Plum's R.J. Umberger was taken at No. 16 overall by Vancouver Canucks.)
Of the three, Saad has the most potential, but is also the most likely to bust. Let's take a look the Gibsonia native, his strengths, style of play and what has caused some scouts to sour on him.
As recently as December, Saad was bandied about as a potential top-five pick. Now, his ranking has startlingly dropped to No. 19 among North American skaters in the draft over the last five months. An alarming sign, yes. Still, Saad is a player with the potential to be a real goal-scoring threat at the NHL level, the likes of which Pittsburgh has yet to produce.
"I think you can project him to be a 35-goal scorer in the NHL," said one Eastern Conference scout in an ESPN.com interview. "You go through all the major areas: smarts, skating, desire, size, he’s got it all. He’s capable of going straight to the NHL after the draft."
Watching him, it's no surprise that he took inspiration from Jaromir Jagr as a youth hockey player. Though often compared to a power forward because of his size, Saad's fluid play and ability to create space for himself to take shots betrays this. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, and with room to grow, no one would mistake Saad for Martin St. Louis, but the power-forward moniker doesn't seem to fit his style.
Jagr, for comparison's sake, was large and effectively used his size and balance, but was more of a skill player than a prototypical power forward. From limited viewings, Saad appears to play in a similar vein, though obviously not at the same level.
Saad has all of the physical tools a proper power forward possesses, but there seems to be an extra wrinkle to his game. That tendency to cut inside a bit more, use his hands over his size. Saad looks especially effective on the rush, using a sound awareness to make plays, find open lanes and fearlessly pull the trigger.
Here we see a bit more from Saad, scoring a hat trick against the Peterborough Petes. Saad's playmaking is evident early on, going to the net hard but headily dropping the puck off to a trailing teammate. Shortly after, he scores his first goal. He's on a rush, again, but cuts inside and beats the goalie high. A typical power forward would likely use his body to take the puck to the net on at least one of these occasions.
Saad is a little less direct. The ability to morph into a power forward by the time he reaches the NHL is there, he just isn't one quite yet.
The size will be what sells him to teams, though. Skilled, goal-scoring forwards in the junior leagues can be a dime a dozen. The ones with hands, shiftiness and NHL size are the rarity, and that's what makes Saad such an asset to whatever team drafts him.
Of course, Saad could plummet in the draft further than he already has. We've seen it before and it was the main reason the Penguins were once able to draft Angelo Esposito as late as they did. A player with top-end draft talent, questions about Esposito's work ethic and attitude caused him to drop until the latter part of the first round. Similar questions seem to have surfaced about Saad, not so much about attitude, but rather about whether he has the mental fortitude to use his physical tools. Couple in a a dip in scoring during the second half of the OHL season and scouts have begun to wonder about how dynamic of a player he could truly be.
Many players have the skill to dominate junior hockey games like Saad does, but few who do can boast his size. The real question is whether he will use it or not.