Jonathan Toews gets a lot of press, some if it occasionally going a bit over the top. Such hyperbole, however, is in itself a representation of the elite level Chicago’s captain has reached; he may not be as good as Sidney Crosby, but that there is even a discussion about it is a testament to No. 19’s on-ice excellence.
I wouldn’t dream of genuinely arguing that Toews is superior to Crosby. But there is also little real sense in these discussions; what does “superior” actually mean? Comparative value to respective teams is a ridiculously difficult construct to measure (and indeed why Hart Trophy voting is often a farce). It is easy to talk about point totals and linemates, but the conversation inevitably devolves into hypothetical-mongering; what this player would have done if he had that linemate, or how this group of teammates made that player look better than he is, or some otherwise vacuous silliness.
The above underlies why comparisons between elite players are so tough to make. Naturally this reality does not stop anyone from attempting to make them anyway, but the line of reasoning used to do so is almost always fundamentally flawed. As boring as it may sound, there is very little merit to “who’s better” discussions concerning two players on two different teams.
Still, we can look a single player’s value to his own franchise; there is no cross-team comparative dreck to muck up the topic.
So let me make this clear: Jonathan Toews is Chicago’s most important player, and it isn’t close. Below, I take a look at some of his outstanding traits and then explain what makes him even more important to Chicago than the team’s other best players.
In addition to his fantastic work on the boards, goal scoring is far and away Toews’ best offensive trait. People forget or simply don’t realize that prior to this year, he had scored 52 goals in his last 106 regular season games — a pace that would net him 40 goals over the course of an 82-game campaign. For context, only four players topped 40 in the NHL’s last full season in 2011-12.
There is a laughable amount of noise about Toews’ lack of scoring in Chicago’s Stanley Cup run last spring, noise which is as unfounded as it is aggravating. I will address this topic directly later on.
In the meantime, it seems appropriate to include some real-life examples of Toews doing what he does best.
(No, Doc, there was no “save, Fleury” there).
Face-off Ability and Puck Possession Savant
Face-offs are important in their own right, but their significance is magnified on a team that emphasizes puck possession like the Blackhawks.
The fact that it’s been an incredibly disappointing year at the dot for Toews and yet he still ranks 12th in the NHL in face-off percentage says a lot about the level of supremacy he typically displays. He operated (nearly) at an absurd 60% clip in 2011-12 and 2012-13, and even in a down season in 2013-14 has still been successful 56.4% of the time.
As I mentioned, face-offs are especially vital in Chicago’s system. Toews’ brilliance on draws is perhaps actually surpassed by his ability to drive possession while he is on the ice. As usual, this season he has the highest relative Corsi (RC) of any Blackhawk, and the distance between him and second place (Marian Hossa) is pronounced.
It’s quite telling that there’s a big gap between those two, actually. Hossa has been almost exclusively on Toews’ line all season long, yet Toews’ RC is noticeably better; this suggests that the Blackhawks continue to control possession when Toews is on the ice even when Hossa is not there with him. It is clearly not simply a case of having strong linemates.
Jonathan Toews’ Renowned Defensive Play
“He’s good defensively” is too often used as a non-descriptive catchall, so let me lay out exactly what Toews does so well in his own zone.
The key to effective defense, as predictable as it may sound, is effort. I’m not speaking of the oversimplified dichotomy that most would set up; that is to say, “he tries” versus “he doesn’t try.”
No. Most (if not all) NHL players “try.” Even Alexander Ovechkin… well, not always.
Jokes aside, what I’m getting is that ‘extra’ bit of effort. It is, for example, what distinguishes a player who will dive straight into a scrum in front of the net to prevent a goal from a player who chooses to stand on the outside and poke around at said scrum with his stick. As you might have guessed I’d say, Toews is more or as invested on defense as any NHLer.
Moving on, he is wonderful positionally. Toews always seems to make the ideal decision in the defensive zone, consistently offering support to Chicago’s defensemen when they need it and staying as an outlet in front of the net when they don’t. While not a particularly physical player, Toews’ gritty nature only frustrates opponents further as they attempt to generate chances.
Great Playoff Performer
Oh yes, you’re reading correctly. Toews’ game in the playoffs during his NHL career has been sensational, including last year.
Don’t be fooled by point totals. They are a terrible measure to use in order to gauge player effectiveness in a small sample, which is precisely what the playoffs are. There is far too much room left for variability; a player who has 10 points in 20 games may very well be generating more offensive chances than another player who has 15 or even 20 points in those 20 games. Small samples introduce a slew of confounders to the “point totals/player effectiveness” relationship (which is already correlational and thus imperfect to begin with!).
No, a much more reasonable avenue to judging how good a player actually was — especially one who plays for the possession-obsessed Blackhawks — is Corsi. Hundreds of Corsi events happen every game; they are a much more valid indicator of how much an individual “drove the play,” so to speak.
You see where this is going. Toews topped the team in relative Corsi by a comical amount during last year’s playoffs, with the puck rarely being in Chicago’s defensive zone when he was on the ice.
I could talk about possession all day, but the bare minimum is really all that’s necessary in this context. The Blackhawks owned the puck with Toews on the ice to a degree that was not even remotely close to matched by any other player on the roster.
Still, if you’re very stubborn about the value of points as a metric in a small sample, we can go that route as well. Toews outscored his matchup (the opposition’s top center) in all 4 playoff series last spring.
And there are still people harping on about how he had a bad postseason?
Yawn at those people, and stop believing everything you read at HFboards.
Comparing Toews to Other Elite Blackhawks Players
It isn’t uncommon for hockey fans to contend that Patrick Kane is more important to Chicago’s team than Toews is, but it should be. Despite the bizarre myth that Toews isn’t a great offensive player (does anybody know why that still exists or why it ever did?), Kane does not offer much more offensive production than he does; indeed, this has proven true even in Kane’s best years. Add in Toews’ proclivity to drive puck possession and his evident usefulness on the defensive end, and it’s clear who is more valuable to Chicago’s on-ice success.
I trust no one would try to argue for any of the more “peripheral” stars such as Hossa, Sharp, or Seabrook, so we can move right on to Duncan Keith.
It is admittedly a difficult exercise to compare forwards to defensemen. We can, however, establish a base; namely that Toews and Keith each produce at similar rates with respect to their positions and that both are very good at both ends of the rink.
Such generalities make Toews and Keith sound approximately even. Nevertheless, Toews has the edge in terms of importance to the Blackhawks. He has no apparent or exploitable weakness in his game, something that cannot be said for Keith (whose shot has essentially become useless). Toews also faces appreciably tougher competition, in light of Keith no longer being used to shut down the opposition’s best forwards.
He may not be the best player in the world of hockey, but Jonathan Toews is incontrovertibly the best player in Chicago sports.
Sean covers the Chicago Blackhawks for The Hockey Writers and Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @seansarcu.