By Jay Cohen
AP Sports Writer
CHICAGO — Coming off perhaps the worst season of his career, Jonathan Toews sees only one way forward.
Learn from the past. Apply those lessons to right now. Relish every moment.
It’s just that simple. In the wake of another empty postseason, the captain of the Chicago Blackhawks went in search of what he lost over the years. The final result is one of the biggest keys to Chicago’s immediate future.
“I think there’s a lot of years that have been adding up, where I think you have some little nagging things that kind of pile up that you want to get rid of,” Toews said Friday after his first day on the ice at training camp.
“I wanted to get back to just playing a more skill game,” he continued, “getting back to just regaining my athleticism, my ability to move laterally and skate with the puck and a lot of that is just being able to get that mobility, get that ability to skate properly back. Just worked on a lot of skill, worked on a lot of just getting the body to feel right again.”
For years, Toews was one of the most dependable players in the NHL. He was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP when Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2010. He hoisted the Cup again in 2013 and 2015.
But Toews, who turns 30 in April, had no goals and six assists when the Blackhawks were eliminated by the Blues in seven games in the opening round of the 2016 playoffs. Then the All-Star center slipped to a career-low 21 goals and plus-7 rating in 72 games last season.
Toews was outplayed by Ryan Johansen and Nashville’s top line as the Predators swept the top-seeded Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs in April. Still, he rejects the notion that this season is any more important than his previous time in the league.
“I think every year is a big year for me,” he said. “You look back on some of the years that maybe snowballed in the wrong direction or some years where you feel maybe you underperform offensively, at the end of the day you just try and identify what things you can do differently, learn from them, and apply them to where you’re going next.
“So I think just trying to come in with that experience and trying to enjoy it and trying to have fun, trying to enjoy the challenge of being better than I was last year.”
Part of Toews’ decline in production traces to a revolving door at his left wing. But the Blackhawks think they might have solved that problem by reacquiring Brandon Saad in a blockbuster deal with Columbus in June.
Saad was a key performer for each of Chicago’s last two titles before he was traded to the Blue Jackets in 2015. He was reunited with Toews on the first day of practice on a line with Richard Panik, who set career highs with 22 goals and 22 assists last season.
“You look at the line, it’s almost like, it’s an intimidating line to play against,” teammate Patrick Kane said. “They’re fast, they’re strong, they’re strong on the puck, they’re good with the puck possession, they can score goals. Obviously they’re going to be responsible defensively. It looks like that line’s going to be a good one for us this year.”
Toews, Saad and Panik showed some chemistry right away, and they might be Chicago’s only line combination at the moment that looks like a sure bet for opening night against two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh on Oct. 5.
While Toews’ scoring slipped last season, he finished with 37 assists, right in line with his career numbers. He helped Panik turn into a steady presence, and coach Joel Quenneville doesn’t sound a bit concerned about how Toews will perform this year.
“Jonny’s approach is that he wants to be the best he can be,” Quenneville said. “I think he had a good summer in how he trained and how he’s prepared and he’s excited.”