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Is Jonathan Toews Back?

That depends on what you mean, of course.

Los Angeles Kings v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

Through the first 11 games of the 2022-23 NHL season, Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews has seven goals.

He’s never done this before.

It’s the most he’s had since scoring six goals in the first 11 games of the 2018-19 season, boosted by a hat trick in the second game. It’s miles ahead of last season, when Toews didn’t score his first goal until Dec. 9 against the Montreal Canadiens — the 26th game of that season.

So, let’s address the headline directly: is Jonathan Toews back?

Well ... kind of.

The general consensus of the ol’ eye test seems to be that Toews looks much more like his old self this season. Toews actually had time to prepare for this season as opposed to the 2021-22 season, when his primary focus was shaking off whatever symptoms lingered from that mysterious ailment which sidelined him for the entire 2020-21 season. It’d be fair to conclude he’s in better physical shape now than he was last season, when he looked a step behind the play most of the time.

As for data that’s easier to quantify, Toews’ seven goals have come on 21 shots, a shooting percentage of 33.3 that will certainly decrease as the season continues, because Toews has a career mark of 13.8. He’s not the first player to ride a shot percentage heater, of course — just ask Brandon Hagel.

The more illuminating aspect is looking at the situations when Toews has scored his goals. Following Thursday’s game, Toews has:

  • 3 on the power play (about 43 percent of his goals)
  • 2 during 5-on-5 play (28.5 percent)
  • 1 into an empty-net (14.25 percent)
  • 1 during 3-on-3 OT (14.25 percent)

Compare that to Toews’ career-best 35 goals from 2018-19:

  • 9 on the power play (about 26 percent)
  • 19 during 5-on-5 play (54 percent)
  • 4 into an empty-net (11 percent)
  • 2 during 3-on-3 OT (6 percent)
  • 1 shorthanded goal (3 percent)

Not only is Toews riding a shot percentage heater, he’s also on a similarly unsustainable roll with power-play goals. It’s not a bad thing, just not something likely to continue over the long-term.

In the prime of Toews’ career, he was on a line with Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp or Brandon Saad, which consistently owned the puck more than its opponents, leading to more shots, chances and goals for that line than against that line. Toews hasn’t been on a line like that in the last few seasons and his possession numbers in the small sample from this season are similarly underwhelming.

Here are Toews numbers at the moment, per Natural Stat Trick:

  • 46.22 percent share of shot attempts (CF%), although that’s 5.96 percent above the team rate
  • 42.84 percent share of expected goals (GF%) 1.34 percent above the team rate
  • 41.67 percent share of high-danger chances (HDCF%), 1.55 percent under the team rate
  • All while starting in the offensive zone just 43.18 percent of the time

None of those numbers look good, although it’s worth noting that Toews is outperforming the majority of his teammates in those categories despite not having the benefit of cushy zone starts in the offensive zone (the line of Patrick Kane, Max Domi and Andreas Athanasiou is receiving the majority of those).

Oh, right.

Toews is on an unsustainable goal-scoring binge and has mildly underwhelming possession numbers ...

But is he back?

More than anything mentioned above, things like this suggest that, yeah, he is:

If Toews was one of the on-ice targets for criticism as the Blackhawks plummeted south over the last 4-5 seasons, then he can also be granted credit for a team that’s outperforming it’s abysmal expectations for this season — that’s the blessing and the curse of wearing the “C.” In that second quote, Toews seems to acknowledge that he’s benefitting from some favorable hockey fortunes (aka “puck luck”). But it seems like this team is flipping a collective middle finger at every external source that’s put a limit on this team’s ceiling.

It doesn’t mean that this team is going to win a Stanley Cup or anything, because the overall lack of top-end talent will lead to market corrections for some of these unsustainable trends eventually. But this team is already doing better than it expected, already doing things it wasn’t supposed to do — and Toews is one of the key figures in that development.

So, in that regard: yeah, Jonathan Toews is back.