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Jonathan Toews is playing like an All-Star again

The Blackhawks captain is looking more like his old self on the ice and the stat sheet.

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Chicago Blackhawks Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The Blackhawks weren’t getting Jonathan Toews at his best earlier this season. Whether it was his teammates, nagging injuries, signs of decline, or just a good ol’ fashioned slump, the captain wasn’t producing like the superstar who earned one of the two biggest contracts in hockey.

It got to the point where Toews reiterated his confidence in himself to reporters in late January, which, for someone as decorated as he is at 27 years old (three Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals, a Conn Smythe, a Selke Trophy, etc.), felt like a call to the hockey gods to send him a sign.

"You always seem to be really hard on yourself in any aspect of your game if the numbers aren't there," Toews said. "I just have to keep working. I'm trying not to lose faith and confidence. Just find the way when I do play well, to let it carry into the next game. Stop forcing the offense so much.

"When you get behind the eight ball you start to worry about results too much instead of just the process. I try to improve through that adversity."

Just a few days after those comments, the hockey gods rewarded Toews with four points in a 4-2 win over the Canucks. It was his first four-point game since March 3, 2015, but more importantly, it started a stretch that’s had Toews looking as close to his old self as we’ve seen since he raised the Stanley Cup almost two years ago.

Over the past 11 games, Toews has recorded five goals, 10 assists, and 36 shots on goal. It’s one of the most productive stretches he’s had in years, and came largely with Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik on his wings. The captain recently hinted that he’d like more stability with his linemates to build chemistry, and he’s going to get it as long as he keeps playing like this.

This is something the star center has been building towards. Here’s a look at Toews’ numbers before and after spending a few weeks sidelined due to a back injury:

Games Goals Assists Points EV Points PPG SPG 5v5 Corsi FO% ATOI
Games Goals Assists Points EV Points PPG SPG 5v5 Corsi FO% ATOI
Before injury 21 4 8 12 8 0.57 2.57 51.4% 60.3 20:33
Since injury 29 8 17 25 17 0.86 2.9 52.6% 55 19:58

Other than his faceoff percentage, which is still quite good and only off by a few percentage points, he’s performed better across the board since coming back in December, even with less ice time each game. It could be that Schmaltz and Panik have helped him, but his improvement stretches to before Joel Quenneville went to that line.

It’s not just the points, either. Take Toews’ recent matchup against Connor McDavid, arguably a top-two player in the entire NHL at 20 years old, in which he didn’t record an assist until Panik’s goal late in the third period. Before that, the two star centers consistently matched up, and it was all Toews.

The Blackhawks led 13-4 in shot attempts and 8-2 in shots on goal during nearly eight minutes of Toews vs. McDavid, 5-on-5 play, per Natural Stat Trick. This was one of the game’s most electric scorers, currently on pace for the Art Ross Trophy, and his line couldn’t get anything going.

While the end result fell in the Oilers’ favor, Toews went up against an A-list superstar and thrived. It’s a sign of how far he’s come since his struggles earlier in the season.

This shouldn’t be too surprising given how much stronger and more confident Toews has looked on the puck lately. The center didn’t always have that early in the season, when he’d occasionally disappear from games or get nudged off the puck just a tad too easily. It was never as simple as his linemates because he didn’t exactly look amazing when he had the puck, either.

Maybe that speaks to an improved feeling of chemistry with Schmaltz and Panik, which is something that’s eluded him since the days when Saad and Marian Hossa were his usual partners in crime. Look at this pass to set up a Schmaltz goal against the Wild a couple weeks ago:

Breathe in this goal he scored Sunday night against the Sabres, which is the most Toews goal Toews has ever scored:

These are the kind of high-level offense plays that Toews hasn’t consistently made over the past year-plus. He’s still been a good possession-driving center who can play in any situation and score at a decent clip, which is quite valuable, but he hasn’t been a point-per-game player since 2012-13, and his numbers have declined each year since then.

When the captain got named to the All-Star Game and the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players list earlier this year, there were jokes. Toews loves jokes, but he probably didn’t like being the subject of them.

Now we’re seeing a different Toews, and it’s closer to the one who played great hockey in those 2015 playoffs. He’s been trending in the right direction ever since returning from a back injury in December, and with the end of the regular season just a few weeks away, it’s a great time for him to be reaching a higher gear.

Maybe Toews will never be a point-per-game scorer for a full season again — some guys really do peak around ages 22-24 — but the Toews that the Blackhawks have gotten over the past month has been better than we’ve seen in a while. That Toews is one of the best centers in the NHL, and the kind impact presence the Hawks need on the ice given his role and contract.

If Toews can keep building on this, and bring his best game in the postseason, the rest of the league should take notice. He’s playing his best hockey in a long time, and that’s usually not great news for opponents when the games really count.