CHICAGO — The Chicago Blackhawks said all along that Brandon Saad would be back next season.
Right up until Tuesday afternoon.
With contract talks at a stalemate on the eve of NHL free agency, the Stanley Cup champions parted with Saad in a seven-player deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“Our plan all along was to sign Brandon. I mean obviously we didn’t know until we began negotiating where they were going to be,” Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said. “All I can say is you do your best and we gave it a real good shot. Both sides tried hard. We just couldn’t come to an agreement.”
The Blackhawks also sent forward Alex Broadhurst and defenceman Michael Paliotta to the Blue Jackets for forwards Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, Jeremy Morin and Corey Tropp and a fourth-round selection in the 2016 draft.
Saad set career highs with 23 goals and 29 assists in 82 games this past season. He then had eight goals and three assists in the playoffs, helping Chicago to its third NHL title in six seasons.
“He’s going to be a big piece for our team for many, many years to come, so we’re very excited,” Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said.
Saad is eligible for restricted free agency, and Kekalainen said the Blue Jackets were working on a new contract for him. If the negotiations continue into the start of free agency on Wednesday, he said Columbus would just match any offer sheet from another team.
Saad could team with centre Ryan Johansen to form a potent duo on the Blue Jackets’ top line.
“We want winners here, and he’s a proven winner,” Kekalainen said. “He won two Stanley Cups. He’s 22 years old, he’s been a big part of it. He’s got all the right tools. He’s got speed, he’s got size, he’s got strength and he plays the game hard.”
A big offer sheet for Saad on Wednesday would have put the Blackhawks in a more difficult situation.
“That’s a possibility. Obviously, we’ll never know that,” Bowman said. “I mean that is a factor that you consider when you’re looking at things and trying to decide the best course of action.”
Bowman praised Saad and his representatives, but said he felt they never came close on a contract. Chicago might have to shed more salary to comply with the NHL’s cap of $71.4 million, but the Saad trade provides more options for Bowman moving forward.
Veteran wingers Patrick Sharp and Bryan Bickell, once thought to be on the move, might stick around now. Bowman said contract talks with centre Marcus Kruger, another restricted free agent, were going well.
The 27-year-old Anisimov had seven goals and 20 assists in 52 games for the Blue Jackets last season. With the Blackhawks likely to lose Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette in free agency, the 6-foot-4 Anisimov could slot in at second-line centre behind captain Jonathan Toews.
“He’s a player that we have been trying to acquire for quite some time,” Bowman said. “I’ve talked a long time about our desire to find a big centerman. There’s very few of them in the NHL.”
Anisimov has one year left on his contract, and Bowman said they were close to completing an extension with him.
The 20-year-old Dano, a first-round pick in the 2013 draft, also was a key part of the trade for Chicago. He had eight goals and 13 assists in 35 games in his rookie season with Columbus.
Kekalainen said it was difficult to part with Dano.
“I think he’s going to have a real good career in the NHL,” he said.