It was only a few years ago that Jonathan Toews was considered not just one of the best centers in hockey, but one of the best players overall. The captain for three Stanley Cup-winning teams in Chicago, he had wiggled his way into the conversation for “Which player would you most want to build around?”
Now after a couple of down years punctuated by the Blackhawks’ brief trips in the playoffs, Toews’ reputation has lost some of its shine. Another example of that came over the weekend when NHL Network revealed its top 20 centers for the upcoming season. Toews comes in No. 12.
The list is topped by reigning Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid, with Penguins superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in second and third, respectively. The top five is rounded out by Calder Trophy winner Auston Matthews and Capitals playmaker Nicklas Backstrom.
Here’s the full list:
Unsurprisingly, fans have had some TAKES for this. Toews has been a featured player on three championship teams, and he hasn’t even turned 30 yet. His cap hit is still tied with Patrick Kane (rated by NHL Network as the best winger in hockey) for the largest in the league at $10.5 million.
Surely there aren’t 11 centers in the league better than him, right?
Except looking at the numbers, it’s hard to argue with where NHL Network placed the Blackhawks’ captain. As much as he’s meant to the Blackhawks over the past decade, declined performance and emerging new stars have pushed him down the totem pole of top centers.
Toews’ numbers don’t quite stack up
Let’s just start here by comparing Toews’ numbers to other top centers. Here’s how the 29-year-old ranks among players at his position to play at least 100 games over the past two seasons (via Play Index).
Even Strength Goals: T-17th
Goals Per Game: T-17th
Assists Per Game: T-31st
Points Per Game: T-21st
Shots Per Game: T-17th
Even Strength Corsi: T-29th
Even Strength Corsi Relative: T-30th
No matter how you slice it, Toews doesn’t look like a top-10 center here. He’s still scoring goals, but his playmaking and possession-driving have left a lot to be desired over the past two seasons. He still sizes up as a solid No. 1 center, but the days of anyone reasonably comparing him to the likes of Crosby are long gone (and probably never should’ve happened in the first place).
Yes, part of that could be attributed to a decline in quality of linemates and some minor back issues that plagued him last season, but even 12th seems generous if you’re going purely off offensive production to evaluate these guys.
Adjusting for two-way play
Of course, Toews does more than just score points, and that does swing the scales back in his direction to some degree. He’s great at faceoffs, kills penalties, and provides leadership in the locker room. He also finished 15th among centers with 50 drawn penalties last season, per NHL.com.
So maybe you consider Toews to be roughly the 20th-best offensive center in the NHL, which would be right in line with his point production over the past two seasons. Maybe you elevate him slightly to account for the return of Brandon Saad and potentially improved chemistry with his wingers. On the flip side, he’s already 29 and missed time last season with a back issue, so it’s possible there’s further decline in store as he gets older.
But even if you love what Toews does as a two-way player, it’d be hard to argue that his contributions are so significant they’d push him into the top 10 overall despite his deficit as a scorer. There are just too many guys who have passed him in that area, and unless he can rebound next season, it’s hard to argue that those other things he brings to the table are worth more than the extra points a superior scorer provides.
That’s why, when accounting for all these factors, I’d say No. 12 for Toews sounds about right. His two-way game elevates him above a lot of other players, but he’s no longer the scorer and possession-driving force that he once was.
How I’d rank the top 20 centers
So with all that in mind, I thought I’d make my own top 20 centers list so you guys can yell at me, too. The list doesn’t align perfectly with NHL Network’s, but we happen to be in agreement on where Toews comes in among the game’s pivots.
- Connor McDavid, Oilers
- Sidney Crosby, Penguins
- Evgeni Malkin, Penguins
- Patrice Bergeron, Bruins
- Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs
- John Tavares, Islanders
- Jack Eichel, Sabres
- Tyler Seguin, Stars
- Steven Stamkos, Lightning
- Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals
- Mark Scheifele, Jets
- Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks
- Ryan Getzlaf, Ducks
- Aleksander Barkov, Panthers
- Leon Draisaitl, Oilers
- Ryan Johansen, Predators
- Anze Kopitar, Kings
- Ryan O’Reilly, Sabres
- Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche
- Ryan Kesler, Ducks
Have at it!