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NHL’s best players under age 25 for 2017: Kneel before Brandon Saad, who is ranked No. 22

Saad returns to the Blackhawks as one of the best two-way wingers in the NHL.

2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Three Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Note: Welcome to SB Nation NHL’s top 25 players under age 25 series! We’ll be covering each player from No. 25 to No. 1 over the next few weeks leading up to training camp time. See the complete list and information on how the rankings were compiled.

If you needed an idea of how much the Chicago Blackhawks liked Brandon Saad, they made it clear this summer by re-acquiring him from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Artemi Panarin.

The move was made with the intention of reuniting Saad with Jonathan Toews on the Blackhawks’ top line after back-to-back first-round playoff exits gave the team an extra dose of urgency to change its chemistry. So while Panarin has been far more productive in terms of points over the past two seasons, he’s out, and Saad is back in.

That’s a reflection of what at least one team thinks of Saad: He’s the kind of talented two-way winger worth giving up a Calder Trophy winner and 70-point player like Panarin. Yes, the Blackhawks also got some cost certainty in the deal because Saad is locked in for an extra two seasons, but they wouldn’t make that deal if they weren’t so fond of what Saad brings to the table.

Saad, for one, doesn’t demand the kind of special usage that was afforded to Panarin. Last season, nobody in the NHL got a higher percentage of offensive zone starts than Panarin’s whopping 81.3 percent. Joel Quenneville saw Panarin as primarily an offensive weapon, and used him as such. The Blackhawks had a fierce scoring line with Panarin and Patrick Kane teaming up, but it was also deployed with the clear purpose of creating offense.

The Blackhawks will likely get back to a slightly more balanced top six now. Saad goes on Toews’ line, which will have to take on some tough defensive assignments, especially after the team lost Marcus Kruger this summer. Kane is typically around 65 percent offensive zone starts, so presumably that’s more or less where the second line will come in now.

Saad allows the Hawks to do that because he’s capable of handling those tough minutes even while getting good numbers. Some guys, like Panarin, require a bit more handling to be put in favorable situations. Saad is better equipped to create those favorable situations himself given his defensive skills in spite of a different style of deployment.

That combination of factors, along with a track record of playoff performance, puts Saad at No. 22 in our ranking of the NHL’s best under-25 players. He may not have the monster offensive upside of many of his peers on this list, but he’s become reliable as a very, very good player, even if he’s not quite great. That was enough to earn a lot of votes from our writers.

Past accomplishments

Saad was widely considered one of the top players in the 2011 NHL Draft class before he eventually fell to the Blackhawks with the No. 43 overall pick in the second round. It ended up being a huge win for Chicago, which would win two Stanley Cups with Saad as a key contributor.

During the 2011-12 season, Saad led the OHL in points per game, then got called up to the NHL for good in 2012-13. He finished third in Calder Trophy voting after recording 10 goals and 17 assists in 46 games. During the playoffs, he had only six points in 23 games, but he also shot just 2 percent.

The next year, Saad nearly cracked 20 goals for the first time, then broke out in the playoffs with 16 points in 19 games. The Hawks got eliminated by the Kings in the Western Conference Finals, but it was a sign that Saad would be the kind of player who can handle the physicality and intensity of playoff hockey.

Saad continued from there with another good season in Chicago, winning his second Stanley Cup after putting up eight goals during the playoff run. His two-way ability was on display, like when he scored a breakaway shorthanded goal against Anaheim in the conference finals:

The Blackhawks ended up trading Saad to the Blue Jackets in 2015 because they couldn’t afford his $6 million-per-year demand as a restricted free agent. The team got a nice haul including Artem Anisimov and Marko Dano, plus it hit a home run with the Panarin signing to replace him in the top six.

In Columbus, Saad proved he wasn’t simply a benefactor of playing next to Toews when he recorded 31 goals and 53 points in his first season. He followed that up with another 53-point season in 2016-17 as the Blue Jackets emerged to be one of the league’s better teams.

But the Blackhawks missed the two-way identity that Saad helped give them, so they paid a high price to bring him back on a contract that was previously too rich for their books.

Future impact

Saad is almost 25 — his birthday is in late October — so it’s fair to say that he’s probably already at or close to his peak. The good news is that he’s already an extremely effective player, so he doesn’t need to get a ton better to break into the next echelon of top wingers.

One of the things that’s so impressive about Saad’s game the past few years is his ability to make an impact during 5-on-5 play. He scored 50 of his 53 points at even strength last season. While he was 52nd in goals overall last season, he was tied for 19th in even strength goals alongside Nikita Kucherov, Eric Staal, and James van Riemsdyk.

That’s what the Blackhawks will be expecting going forward: high-level play at even strength that will translate to the postseason. His lefty shot could also change the dynamic of a power play that struggled last season while depending heavily on Panarin’s righty shot. The Hawks need someone who can get tighter in and finish chances in the slot, and maybe Saad could be that guy.

Each the past four seasons, Saad has put up between 47 and 53 points. That seems like a reasonable baseline to expect going forward.

Is this ranking too high or too low?

That depends on how much you value Saad’s 5-on-5 contributions and two-way game. Some probably will think he doesn’t deserve to be on this list given that his point production doesn’t put him among the league’s superstars.

But then you see how his even strength numbers stack up — quite well! — and how badly the Blackhawks wanted to bring him back into the fold, even at the expense of Panarin. He’s not the most traditional player on this list, which is full of guys who could go on to become superstars, but there aren’t a ton of players around the league like Saad.

Highest rank: No. 8

Lowest rank: Not ranked