It seems silly that we ever doubted Jonathan Toews in the first place, looking back on it.
Earlier in the 2015-16 season, pundits and fans alike were trying to figure out what was wrong with “Captain Serious.” We wondered collectively if all that playoff hockey had finally caught up with him. We looked at his age, 27, and noted that forwards tend to begin their inevitable decline as they approach 30.
It took Toews seven games to score his first goal this season and he finished October with seven points in 11 games. He followed that up with eight points in 13 November games and nine points in 15 December contests. After three consecutive disappointing months, analysts started to ask the tough questions.
His shooting rates had plummeted — from October 31 to Christmas he was to one shot or fewer 14 times — and only five of his 11 goals to that point had been scored during five-on-five play. Toews has always brought more to the rink than points, but his possession numbers had taken a hit too.
While Patrick Kane was busy lighting up the league and charging out to one of the best seasons in Blackhawks history, Toews was mired in one of the tougher stretches of his career. He’s been cold before, but those intangibles were still in place. Something just seemed off for No. 19 as both he and the Blackhawks struggled.
It wasn’t quite time to panic as 2015 dissolved into 2016, but the L.A. Kings’ 2014-15 season was still fresh in everyone’s minds. They were the defending Stanley Cup champions, and by all accounts a very, very good hockey team. They never seemed to find the on switch though, and ended up missing the playoffs despite being good. Could that same fate befall the Blackhawks?
Not on Toews’ watch. Not after three Stanley Cup championships in six seasons. Not with a legacy on the line.
On December 27, Chicago took a 2-1 loss from the Carolina Hurricanes. The Blackhawks sat at 20-13-4 after that game and had fallen behind the Central Division-leading Dallas Stars. The team wasn’t in danger of missing the playoffs necessarily, but they weren’t creating much breathing room for themselves either. This isn’t a team we’re used to seeing scrap for a Wild Card spot down the stretch.
That was 11 games ago, the Blackhawks haven’t lost since and all doubt surrounding this team has been erased entirely.
Dallas has gone 3-5-3 in its last 11 contests while Chicago has gone lossless. The dramatic turnaround has propelled the defending Cup champions to the top of the Central Division standings, and Toews has been at the center of the surge. He’s back to making elite plays and hasn’t been afraid to fire the puck either.
Kane is still playing at an insanely high level, but now he has a bit more help from Chicago’s No.1-A line. For the first few months of the season, head coach Joel Quenneville did his usual thing and played line-blender with Toews and Marian Hossa. The duo cycled through numerous wings every night as “Coach Q” did his best to jump-start his struggling stars.
Andrew Shaw has settled in on Toews’ left side recently, and that trio has been outstanding during the team’s 11-game winning streak. Toews has personally elevated his game back to the level we’re used to seeing from him–at least from a statistical standpoint.
Over Chicago’s last 11 contests, Toews has eight goals and five assists for 13 points. His scoring surge has nearly pushed him into the NHL’s top-1o finishers, and his goals per game (.40) is the highest it has been in three years despite the sluggish start.
Toews is now on pace for 32 goals (which would be his highest total since 2010-11) and 60 points. More importantly, his play has helped Hossa find his game and Shaw is playing some of the best hockey of his career.
Hockey is a strange game sometimes. In hindsight, believing that Toews was falling off after three so-so months may have been preemptive. Scoring rates across that small of a sample will always be unpredictable, but it was odd to see one of the league’s most consistent players fighting the game so much.
Up until December, he was making small mistakes in the neutral zone and passing on opportunities he should have taken. As mentioned earlier, he wasn’t taking many shots, and the ones he was taking simply weren’t going in. He was finishing far below his career average of 15.1 percent. Now he’s scoring at a higher clip than normal, thanks in large part to an increase in shooting volume.
He has taken four or more shots in six of Chicago’s last 11 games, which stands in stark contrast to how he was playing earlier in the year.
Toews will eventually slow down and score at a slower clip. Maybe it’ll happen next year. Maybe it’ll take a few more seasons. This much is clear though: he hasn’t hit that wall yet, and is still among the NHL’s top forwards in all three zones.
All statistics appear courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com and are accurate through games played on January 17.