Captain Jonathan Toews finds himself in an odd position as the Blackhawks prepare to open training camp Friday.
For the first time since his rookie season, Toews, 30, is looking to prove himself.
The Hawks know keeping Toews productive affects the entire team. That’s why — to Patrick Kane’s detriment — they dealt winger Artemi Panarin to the Blue Jackets in 2017 and reacquired Brandon Saad.
Toews and Saad had a history of success as linemates, and the hope was the two could rekindle their chemistry.
Kane adapted to coach Joel Quenneville’s shuffling of lines, but Toews and Saad couldn’t click last season, and the Hawks suffered because of it.
The Hawks can’t afford a repeat of last season, especially if they want to make a run in the playoffs.
Here are the three core players who are due for rebound seasons:
1. Center Jonathan Toews
Toews makes those around him better. So it was a no-brainer when the Hawks signed him to an eight-year, $84 million deal in 2014.
His sharp decline the last two seasons is puzzling, and the Hawks are trying to figure out ways to revive their aging star.
Toews, who had 52 points (20 goals, 32 assists) last season, is more of a playmaker than a goal-scorer.
He isn’t afraid to play aggressively and pursue the puck in the corners. But the modern NHL is shifting toward a younger and faster generation, something Toews has struggled to embrace.
Coming off his second consecutive down season, Toews said in July that he was working this summer to adopt a more youthful mindset.
He also said he was working on combining speed and strength.
Also, the Hawks need Toews to stay healthy. He missed the last eight games last season with an upper-body injury.
2. Winger Brandon Saad
Saad, 25, is the type of player who’s only as good as his linemates.
After having two of the best seasons of his career, Saad regressed last season.
His point total fell from a career-high 53 during the 2016-17 season to 35. And Saad scored only 18 goals, compared to 24 the previous season.
Some of Saad’s problems can be brushed off as bad puck luck. He had more shots on goal (237) than during the previous season, but he couldn’t find the back of the net.
3. Defenseman Duncan Keith
Keith wants to forget last season ever happened. And toward the end of it, he didn’t even try to hide his dissatisfaction.
“It’s been frustrating,” Keith said of the 2017-18 season.
Keith has had down years before, but last season was different.
In 82 games, he put 187 shots on goal. Keith only scored twice. During his 13-year career, he has scored at least six goals nine times and more than 10 goals on three occasions.
Keith also was a career-worst minus-29 last season, tied for ninth-worst in the NHL.
Some of Keith’s decline is normal; he’s in the latter half of a distinguished career highlighted by two Norris Trophies and a Conn Smythe Trophy.
But if the Hawks want to improve their defense, Keith, 35, must play an integral part.