How Toews’ Return Will Impact the Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks received some extremely good news earlier this offseason. Their long-time captain, Jonathan Toews, finally provided an update to the hockey world regarding the mysterious illness that kept him sidelined the entirety of the 2020-21 season. He said he’s suffering from Chronic Immune Response Syndrome. His body finally fought back after all the stress he put it through over the years, coupled with a bout of COVID-19 in Feb. 2020.

After many months of uncertainty, Toews is feeling better and practicing in Chicago. He claims his goal is to be ready to play for the start of the 2021-22 campaign. With that in mind, let’s look at how Toews’ return could impact the Blackhawks.

A Step in the Right Direction

While it was tough and disappointing the 33-year-old captain missed last season, his health was by far the primary concern. Just to hear he’s on the mend is an extreme relief to the Chicago fanbase and the entire hockey community.

Toews admits this illness has been extremely rough for him, and that he’s been away from hockey longer than he’s been since he was a little kid. In an exclusive interview with Mark Lazerus of The Athletic, he speaks of the very plausible reality that he could have a relapse at any time. He knows he must listen to his body first and foremost. But he also brings his innate positivity to what can only be described as a crappy situation.

I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity in my life to have that quiet, and that space, and that stillness. I’ve been playing hockey year-round, on a year-round schedule, for as long as I can remember…I guess sometimes you have to kind of go through the s*** and come out better on the other side.

(From ‘Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews opens up about the longest year of his life: ‘The best worst thing that’s ever happened to me’, The AthleticCHI – 6/30/2021)

So while we should all temper our expectations for Toews this coming season, this is all a step in the right direction. And this dynamic hockey player brings so much to the table. While the Blackhawks fared much better than expected last season, they have the potential to find even more success with the rejuvenated veteran back in the fold.

Toews’ Numerous Strengths

We all know Toews does a lot of things quite well. Let’s break it down.

Strong Two-Way Play

The Blackhawks have struggled with this arguably since their last Stanley Cup championship in 2015. It’s hard to come by a power forward that can play a strong defensive game AND produce offensively. The loss of Marian Hossa was huge in this respect. In the last few seasons of his career he wasn’t as stalwart offensively, but Hossa could protect the puck like nobody’s business. Brandon Saad is another name that comes to mind in this category.  

Toews has also always been known for his two-way proficiencies. He plays a hard, heavy game, and he contributes on the power play and the penalty kill. He’s been voted among the top-six for the Selke Trophy (best defensive forward) in eight of his 13 seasons, and won the award outright in 2013. Plus, he’s always been one of the Blackhawks’ top scorers.

Jonathan Toews Chicago Blackhawks
Jonathan Toews brings a lot to the table for the Chicago Blackhawks. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Many were critical of the captain losing his offensive flair back in the 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons when he only posted 58, 58, and 52 points, respectively. I know, those are still solid contributions. But the rest of Toews’ career set the bar pretty high. Coincidentally, this downturn corresponded with Hossa’s “retirement” and Saad transitioning back into the Blackhawks’ lineup after a stint with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Toews was forced to carry a much heavier load.

Related – Jonathan Toews: Beyond the Glory

But he responded with his best all-around career numbers in the 2018-19 season with 35 goals, 46 assists, and 81 points. Earning 60 points in the shortened 2019-20 season wasn’t too shabby either (good for second on the team). The long and the short of it is that Toews’ two-way play will be welcome on this 2021-22 Blackhawks’ squad.

Faceoff Prowess

Another attribute Toews offers is that he’s one of the best in the league at winning faceoffs. His career success rate at the dot is 56.9%. He correspondingly takes the most faceoffs on the team when he’s in the lineup. In the 2019-20 season Toews took a whopping 1494 faceoffs, which as 884 more than second place Ryan Carpenter (610 draws taken). Yep, Toews took over twice as many draws as anyone else.  

It goes without saying the Blackhawks sorely missed their trusted center in this department this past season. David Kampf led the team in his absence, taking 777 draws and winning 52.8% of them. But Kampf is a defensive fourth line forward. He couldn’t be utilized to win those important draws for the top lines like Toews can do. It most certainly left the more skilled forwards at a disadvantage when they didn’t start their shifts with possession of the puck.

Related – Blackhawks 2020-21 Player Grades: David Kampf

To put things in perspective, the other regular forwards didn’t do much to help Kampf out. Dylan Strome’s season faceoff percentage was 47%, Pius Suter’s was 42.6%, and Kirby Dach’s was 40%. Suter was second on the team with 625 draws taken (over 100 less than Kampf) & Strome third with 421 draws.

Toews being around again to take and to win faceoffs will be a huge boost for the Blackhawks.  

Veteran Leadership

This is one of those intangibles that might go underappreciated, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. Toews is a born leader. I might be biased since I cover the Blackhawks. But I think most players, coaches and fans respect Toews as one of the best captains in the league. He leads by example, he puts the team on his back on and off the ice, and he welcomes and mentors newer and younger players. Heck, just having Toews back in the dressing room will be beneficial.

Chicago Blackhawks Jonathan Toews Connor Murphy
Chicago Blackhawks’ captain Jonathan Toews celebrates with defenseman Connor Murphy. (AP Photo Nuccio DiNuzzo)

He’s been one of the faces of the franchise for 14 years, since he came into the league in the 2007-08 season. And he’s been an integral part of three successful Stanley Cup runs. He knows how to dig deep when you think you have nothing left. He’s come up clutch countless times. He simply knows how to win.

It was probably really tough to not have all that this past season. Sure, veterans Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith have their leadership attributes. Some of the younger players like Alex DeBrincat and Connor Murphy stepped up in Toews’ absence. But nobody quite has the presence and intensity that the man dubbed “Captain Serious” can offer.

Lineup Options

So, what would the forward lines look like with Toews involved? I’m glad you asked. I have high hopes for a much better and more balanced forward group with Toews back in the fold.

Dach might be the heir apparent No. 1 center to this team. But I still think it’s Toews’ spot to lose, and Dach isn’t ready to replace him just yet. That said, Toews should start out the season centering the top line.

Remember in the 2019-20 campaign when Dominik Kubalik worked so well on Toews’ left wing? Well, there’s no reason to believe they can’t pick up right where they left off. And this would then solve that problem of Kubalik not getting enough ice time. I believe last season he was deployed mostly on the third line to provide more balance to the forward group. This year head coach Jeremy Colliton should have more options. He has several second-year players who have more experience under their belts, as well as some newer talent to add to the mix.

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As far so a right winger for the top line, I’d go with Pius Suter. He centered the first line most of last season. He’s familiar with top line minutes and responsibilities. Playing wing would take some of the pressure off, giving him even more opportunities for success. With Kubalik, Toews and Suter heading up the top line, one could still keep DeBrincat and Kane together on the second line, with Dach as their center to round out the top-six.

Will Toews be fully healthy and ready to play at the beginning of the 2021-22 season? We sure hope so, and its Toews’ goal as well. He certainly brings a plethora of strengths to this team, who made surprising strides in their development even in his absence. But the long and the short of it remains. Unless Toews is an absolute shell of his former self, the Blackhawks are going to be much better off with him than without him.

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