Much consideration has been given of late to the state of the career of Jonathan Toews, long-time captain of the Chicago Blackhawks. Now in his 11th NHL season, Toews has seen an incredible amount of success. He’s set the bar high, which is why he, and many in the hockey world, are critical of his last few years in the league. Set against his standards, Toews is on track for yet another mediocre season.
But this is where one needs to take a step back and look at the big picture. I mentioned “his standards”. Because Toews has never been normal. In fact, he’s always been quite extraordinary. To understand what I mean, we must start at the beginning.
Jonathan Toews – The Younger Years
Toews was born on April 29, 1988 in the St. Boniface-Winnipeg area to Bryan Toews and Andree Gilbert, and seemed destined for the NHL at a very young age. His dad tied on his first pair of skates when he was only three and says he became an instant whiz on ice.
In an interview, father Toews was quoted as saying: “Jonathan could see things you’d show him and then go right out there and do them much better than I’d describe them. I remember I had him on the lake when he was four. He had such a natural stride. I remember several parents coming up to me and asking, ‘How old is that kid?'”
To which Jonathan added: “It wasn’t that natural for me. I never was one of the biggest kids, but I kind of found myself thinking of ways in my mind to beat them,” he said. “I’d use my skating, my stickhandling, my wits to visualize ways to win.”
And win he did. When he was still a pup, the elder Toews built a backyard rink for Jonathan and his kid brother David so they could skate till they dropped. What others called hard work was fun for the Toews family. Dad skated right along with the boys as their skills grew and their talent developed.
The payoff came quickly. In his Bantam year Jonathan was drafted #1 by the Tri-City Americans but chose instead to play high school. In his last high school year he played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, MN (110 points in 64 games) and ended up spending the next two years at the University of North Dakota where he amassed 85 points in 76 games, had a plus-38 rating and led the Fighting Sioux to the Frozen Four in both 2006 and 2007.
Representing the NHL and Team Canada
Drafted third overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2006 Entry Draft, Toews made the leap to the NHL in the fall of 2007 at age 18. Along with Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane, Toews was part of a new-blood youth movement that moved the 2008 Hawks into the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
In December of his second year (2008-09) he was made an assistant captain and on July 18, 2009 was named captain at the ripe old age of 20, becoming the third youngest player to do so behind Vinnie Lecavalier and Sid Crosby. His nifty scoring touch and his heads-up style of play have made him a fan favorite. He was rewarded in December 2009 with a six-year contract extension worth about $6.5 million a year.
Toews competed internationally for Team Canada and won gold medals at the 2005 World U-17 Hockey Challenge (leading scorer 8-4-12), 2006 and 2007 World Junior Championships and at the 2007 Men’s World Championships. In the semi-final against the USA, he scored once in regulation and three times in the shootout to advance his team to the finals.
The year 2010 was kind to this powerful young player. In February, he competed for Canada against the World in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, leading his team with eight points. His seven assists led the tournament while he tallied his only goal to open the scoring in the crucial Gold Medal game against the USA. At the end of the two weeks, sporting a shiny new Gold Medal, Jonathan was named Best Forward.
Back in Vancouver in May for the NHL Western Conference semi-finals, in the pivotal fourth game, with three goals and two assists, he tied Stan Mikita’s longstanding Blackhawks record for most points (5) in a single game.
But it didn’t end there. Toews and his Blackhawks went on to win the Stanley Cup that year. It was the first time Chicago hoisted the Cup since 1961, a drought of 49 years. Toews was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy for the most valuable player in the playoffs. He amassed seven goals and 22 assists in 22 playoff games. He also became one of only eight players to win Olympic gold and the Stanley Cup in the same year.
Continuing an Illustrious Career
This intense and driven young man charged on. He led his team to two more Stanley Cup championships, in 2013 and 2015. He was awarded the Selke Trophy for best defensive forward in 2013. In 2015, Toews received the Mark Messier Leadership award for being a leader in his sport as well as a contributing member of society. He was also recognized as the ESPY Best NHL player, selected by an ESPN Nominating Committee. Between 2009 and 2017, he participated in four NHL All-Star games, and was nominated for six. In 2017, he was part of a prestigious group that was honored as the 100 Greatest NHL Players.
Internationally, Jonathan Toews again represented and won the Gold Medal with Team Canada in the 2014 Winter Olympics. In 2016, he was a part of the Canadian team to win gold in the World Cup of Hockey.
Success comes with it’s perks. In July of 2014, the Blackhawks signed Toews and teammate Patrick Kane to identical eight-year contract extensions to the tune of $10.5 million per year. The contracts went into effect for the start of the 2015-16 season.
“Jonathan and Patrick have become cornerstones of this franchise during their time in Chicago,” general manager Stan Bowman said in a statement. “We are excited to ensure they will continue to lead our organization for years to come.”
Having two players eat up $21 million dollars in cap space is not exactly ideal, but the Blackhawks felt it was worth it for these two “faces of the franchise” that essentially turned the fortunes of the team. Especially for Toews, it’s been a double-edged sword. His history earned him a sweet contract, but there is also the constant pressure to live up to it.
The Present Situation
Which brings us back to the present, and Toews’ supposed lack of production over the last few years. Until recently, he’s been considered one of the best two-way players in the league. He takes on the responsibilities of playing center and taking faceoffs. He’s tasked with shutting down the opponent’s top lines, in addition to producing offensively.
Yet, he’s constantly compared to his teammate, Kane — but Kane is more of a one-dimensional player. He’s really only taxed with the offensive side of things. Comparing them isn’t exactly fair.
The truth is that the Blackhawks’ system expects much more of Toews than it does of Kane. If Toews was only tasked with the offensive side of things, would he be as good as Kane? Hmm, probably not, but you get the point. While everyone wants Toews to score as many goals as Kane, that’s not the way it works.
Let’s look more closely at Toews’ production. The last two regular seasons, he recorded 58 points each year. This season he’s on pace for 62 points. His average points before that, from 2008 to 2015, was 63 points. From this standpoint, he’s only seen a slight dip in production. And he’s arguably been given more defensive responsibility over the last few years. He’s lost long-time linemate Marian Hossa (who was no slouch defensively himself), and seen a revolving door of linemates on his left wing.
Sure, one could argue his playoff numbers are down. But it’s pretty hard to make any kind of comparison when the Blackhawks have been eliminated in the first round the last two seasons. Toews did get pushed around against the Nashville Predators last year, but so did the entire team.
What the Future Holds
Is Toews on the downside of his career? Lots of things have changed over the years. The game has gotten faster. Linemates have come and gone. He’s gotten older. But the best players are supposed to fight through all those things, right? After all, Toews is only 29 years old. He’s older, but not exactly washed up.
He’s still the beloved captain of the Blackhawks, and he’s still one of the faces of the franchise. He’s on pace for a good, but not great, year with a struggling team. At this point, things could go either way. He could slowly decline, and just have memories of the glory days. Or he could have a resurgence, and potentially lead his team to another Stanley Cup. There are so many factors involved. Only time will tell.
Regardless of the outcome, I think it’s safe to say Jonathan Toews has already earned the right to be considered one of the all-time great hockey players, and a future Hall-of-Famer.
** originally written by Kevin Hunter in May 2010