Evaluating Jonathan Toews’ Return to the Ice

After an entire season off, what did Toews’ return tell us about what he has to offer at this stage of his career?

The Chicago Blackhawks just wrapped up one of the franchise’s lousiest seasons in a very long time.

But if there was a very thin silver lining available to Blackhawks, it was that Jonathan Toews returned to the ice after missing the entire 2021 season. Toews’ return to action was a much welcomed one. However, for much of his time on the ice, the captain did not seem like himself — yelling at the refs not withstanding. It’s not that he was outwardly bad, he just looked out of place and very misused.

But, we’ve seen this before.

Toews’ numbers have mostly been on a downward trend for several years, as back issues, concussions and whatever other non-disclosed injuries Toews has dealt with over the years, his age and numerous deep playoff runs started to creep up on him. Toews bounced back in ‘18-19, with career highs in goals (35), assists (46) and points (81). He then posted a respectable 60 points in 70 games in ‘19-20 before missing all of 2021.

Here’s what happened next:

In 71 games played in his return season, Toews finished the season with a career-low 12 goals and matched his career-low 25 assists — which during 47 games in the shortened ‘13 season. Toews did win 59% of his faceoffs, though, the third-best mark of his career. But these are surface level stats but the numbers don’t tell the entire story.

Early in his career, Toews played more of an offensive role, often alongside Patrick Kane. Both were quick to show off the impressive skill sets the rookies brought with them, ushering a glimpse of hope for the Blackhawks faithful.

However, as the team became more competitive, the dynamic duo were eventually split up to allow for different strategies to be implemented by those lines. It’s important to take usage into consideration when taking a glance at Toews’ numbers and judging his production.

Toews’ strengths come from his fundamental awareness and understanding of the game, which drives his outstanding 200-foot play. He’s been able to consistently tilt the ice, be a key player on both the penalty kill and power play, all while providing consistent offensive production. In the team’s dynasty era, the Hawks’ ability to dominate matchups — with Toews as big part of that —propelled their individual and team success.

Last season, though, much of this was no longer the case. Under new coaching, the team didn’t have those advantageous matchups, the team’s structure and strategy was fickle at best and players rarely had consistent linemates, preventing them from building on-ice chemistry.

The chart below shows where Toews has scored his goals, covering his entire career:

The fact that 82% of his goals come from inside the “house,” (and 45% from the slot) show where Toews does his best work in the offensive zone. Despite this, though, Toews has been used in other ways recently, often on the side boards. In other situations, he was asked to be the first forward into the offensive zone. Combining this with this defensive responsibilities is counter-intuitive.

Along with the career-lows detailed above, Toews’ underlying stats weren’t very good, either. His shooting percentage was under 10% for only the second time in his career. He owned a career-low shot attempt share (47.92 CF%) and, for the first time in his career, his offensive zone start percentage (at all strengths) was below water at 46.8%. This is interesting to note because Toews does take a lot of defensive zone starts by design. Earlier in Toews’ career, there were other lines — most notably Marcus Kruger’s fourth lines — that were used to win a draw, get the puck 200 feet down ice and set up another draw in the offensive zone, allowing a change for Kane’s line and a goal-scoring opportunity. But changes in the roster and the coaching staff have meant that Toews’ line has often been put in that role lately.

In the three seasons leading prior to his 2021 break, Toews was still picking up votes for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward while still posting average — or better — offensive numbers. So, attributing his poor stat line in ‘21-22 to a bit of rust is fair. He did not look himself in many scenarios. He lost some board battles he wouldn’t normally lose, he did not take as many high-danger shots and he surely came off as disgruntled and often disappointed after games. However, a lot of what he lacked seemed to be equally due to usage, inconsistent linemates and a disregard for gaining advantages through matchups.

Fans started to see some vintage Toews down the stretch as he got more settled into the season. No. 19 did some of his best work toward the end of the season, in particular building chemistry with the newly acquired Taylor Raddysh. This could be a preview of what Toews has in store for 2022-23.

Toews has made it very clear that he wants to compete for the Stanley Cup every year. He wants no part in any rebuild. He’s been public about this more than once. He was vocally upset when the former Hawks regime started to break up the long-time Chicago core without consulting him or Kane. While Toews may not be the player he was in his prime, he has a lot to bring to the table still for a franchise in win-now mode. The problem here is that the Blackhawks are clearly not in win-now mode.

What does this mean for Toews’ future in Chicago?

While it pains me to say this, Toews may benefit from a change of scenery. He is entering the last year of his contract but it remains to be seen how that will play out. Even Toews may not know what next season holds for him right now. I don’t believe he necessarily wants to leave Chicago as much has he wants to spend his last run — however many seasons that may be — playing competitive team hockey.

Toews is not a numbers guy. He has always put the team first and has done whatever he was asked, whatever was necessary, for the betterment of the team. He wears the ‘C’ on his sweater not only because of skill, knowledge of the game and intangibles but he also does a lot of the dirty work. While he will never be the scorer or playmaker that Kane is, he does everything else his counterpart doesn’t. He’s willing to do the grunt jobs, he plays in the corners, plays on the PK, takes dungeon starts, wins draws ... he truly knows how to play the center position.

For a generation of Hawks fans who’ve watched Toews’ entire career in a red sweater, a certain sense of culture shock could be on the horizon. The season he had, paired with his comments about the state of the organization, leads me to believe that he could be wearing a different color jersey in the not-so-distant future.  On a cheaper deal, playing second or third-line center, Toews could be the piece a handful of teams need to make a big playoff run. Only time will tell.