Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews has always been more of a grinder than a skill guy. Oh, he has elite hands and vision and can turn defenders inside out, but his best work tends to be less glamorous — mucking in the corners, battling behind the net, fighting through traffic down low.
It’s why he always has been focused more on strength than speed. That strength and gritty style of play helped him win three Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Selke Trophy. It got him named one of the 100 greatest players in NHL history, and it cemented him as one of Chicago’s all-time athletes.
But the game has changed. And Toews must change with it.
The league is younger than ever. It’s faster than ever. It’s more about skill than muscle, more about quickness and explosiveness than grit and determination. And coming off the two worst seasons of his remarkable career, Toews — who turns 30 later this month — knows he needs to change things up to keep up.
“For our veteran guys, playing that different style has been an adjustment,” he acknowledged last week.
Thing is, Toews acknowledged that last year, too. He said he wanted to change his offseason routine to focus more on speed and explosiveness. He wanted to be lighter and leaner. He showed up to training camp in excellent shape but at the same weight, with the same style. Still, he reiterated his desire to get quicker, saying, “That’s the way the game’s going.” Another disappointing season later, he’s still trying to find the right balance.
“There are definitely weaknesses in your game that you have to work on and get better at,” he said. “But the parts that maybe come naturally and are your strengths, you’ve got to still work on those, too.”
In other words, Toews wants to get faster, but he doesn’t want to sacrifice the size and strength that have served him so well for so long. Asked what his offseason plan was, he said, “More of the same.” Asked if a player can get both stronger and faster, particularly at his age, he said, “I think there are ways. It’s a work in progress.”
Toews is more optimistic than some. One league scout and another Hawks team source said Toews needs to shed about 10 pounds and focus more on his speed than his muscle if he wants to have the kind of bounce-back season that Kings center Anze Kopitar had.
Kopitar is perhaps the closest comparable player to Toews. Both are two-way centers loaded with skill but willing to sacrifice offense for defense. Kopitar had just 52 points last season (just as Toews did this season), turned 30 last offseason (just as Toews will this offseason), and carried the Kings back to the playoffs this season (just as Toews hopes to next season) with a career-high 92 points.
Toews has noticed.
“At his age, everyone talks about how young the league’s getting, and if a guy like him can still have a season like he had this year, for sure it’s comforting in that sense,” Toews said. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to go out there and put up 90 points next year.”
Nobody’s expecting him to. That’s winger Patrick Kane’s job. But in the last week, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville, general manager Stan Bowman and team president John McDonough all said the “top guys” need to play like top guys. Toews responded by saying, “The message is received.” And while Toews is invaluable no matter how many points he scores — he’s among the league’s best defensive centers, faceoff men and penalty killers — the Hawks still need more than they got out of him the last two seasons.
Part of it might just be bad luck. Toews and his primary left wing, Brandon Saad, both were among the top five players in the league in possession. The pucks just didn’t go in. That in itself is reason to believe Toews is on the right track and due to spike a big season in 2018-19.
But part of it might be an ever-changing game that requires an ever-changing style. Toews believes he can augment what has made him great. The Hawks can only hope he’s right.
“Speed is probably the most predominant skill that can enhance performance,” Quenneville said. “But I still think strength is part of it. I don’t think you want to get too big, but at the same time, there’s a way to get stronger. And if you get a little improvement in that area, it can help the quickness.”