Captain, kids getting legs under them at the right time
By Robert Zeglinski
It wasn’t long ago where the hockey world was fixated on the depths of the struggles of Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. In the midst of the second year of a new contract that carried a hefty $10.5 million dollar cap hit, the leader the Hawks so desperately rely on in both ends of the ice – a two-way demon – was nowhere to be found.
The first three months of the season saw Toews score just six goals while carrying just 18 points total. Rampant conversation circled the 28-year-old as to whether he had finally lost a step after heavy mileage of length Stanley Cup runs and of course, a generally heavy but responsible style of play on the ice. That was the easy answer, fatigue, but no one really knew what ailed him.
As Toews told the Chicago Tribune a little before Christmas, there was no rhyme or reason to his floundering play that he could put a finger on.
“I feel like I’ve been through this before,” said Toews. “I don’t know what to tell you. I feel like I have experience dealing with this sort of thing. I don’t know what that says about my game.”
Not even the player himself could come to terms with perhaps a new reality. But ever since a widely panned All-Star selection of Toews in January, his game has again done all the talking. The Toews of old has returned for the time being, exactly what Chicago needs as it gears up for another potential championship run.
Since January 22nd, Toews has 16 points in his last 11 games as he gains traction in the best stretch of his career next to December 2013. Toews has been on fire of late, eviscerating opponents he’s matched up against (relatively), erasing them defensively, and as usual, dominating the possession game – a trademark of the modern era Blackhawks as a whole.
That lost step for Toews? It’s back. The eye test and the numbers all back it up. As he told the Chicago Sun Times on his “return” and beaming confidence level with his high level of play: “It’s a world of a difference.”
Could Toews have just needed time to get his sea legs under him? Perhaps. After all, there’s a lot of attrition and wear and tear on his body over a 10-year career. Hockey is a physical game built on endurance and speed. It waits for no one, even someone in the upper echelon such as Toews.
Psychological factors that fans and pundits can’t put a finger on in general conversation may have played a part too. When your entire game has entered a seemingly never-ending death spiral for an extended period of time, its only human nature to think of the worst outcomes and “psyche” yourself out. Just because someone is a peak professional athlete, doesn’t mean they can’t succumb to the same pitfalls of any normal person. It’s Surely, Toews will never wholly admit it himself, though.
As far as on-ice reasons for this resurgence of one of the Blackhawks cornerstones, note the stability of his line-mates. Toews hinted at this frustration a few weeks back in having to develop chemistry from the ground up with new teammates each night. The Hawks searched for a mix that would work and weren’t making any progress until now.
“I would have never predicted that my line would have changed as much as it has,” said Toews to the Chicago Tribune. “It’s up to me to find that consistency with whoever I’m playing with.”
Never one to place the blame on anyone but himself, the Blackhawks and head coach Joel Quenneville eventually obliged their star with a trio of consistency.
On Toews’ left wing, the 20-year-old Nick Schmaltz has been a boon since his return from a midseason Rockford call-up. He isn’t producing at an All-Star level by any means with just 11 points, but his natural instinct and a newfound confidence has paid dividends for the captain. As for Richard Panik on Toews’ right, he’s been the stabilizing force needed all season. Panik isn’t an elite dynamo at this stage in his four year career – nor will he likely ever be – but his own two-way game compliments Toews. 15 goals and 14 assists is nothing to sneeze at from a depth forward.
All of this has added up to a marked improvement in the Hawks’ play of late.
Too often in the past one and a half seasons, Chicago has relied on the brunt of their scoring to come from the second line of Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, and Artem Anisimov. With Toews and company now filling a huge top six void on the first line, you add a necessary depth dimension that any contender needs. It’s by no coincidence the Blackhawks have been averaging four plus goals a game while winning six of their last seven and more impressively – six straight on the road.
A caution to the NHL: The Blackhawks are playing at their best with the playoffs around the corner.
As for Toews? He finally has his swagger back.
Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer for SB Nation and managing editor at No Coast Bias. Follow Robert on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.