LAS VEGAS —If Jonathan Toews really wanted to, he could make a run at the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. He’s got the offensive skills to create scoring chances, he has the vision to dole out goals from behind the opposing net, and he has the grit to fight for and finish off the greasy goals. If he wanted more points, he could get more points.
Of course, the irony is, that would actually make him less valuable to the Blackhawks.
“It’s just being the player that they need him to be every night, regardless of what he thinks or what anybody else thinks,” Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban said. “He just does what the coaching staff and the organization need him to do. And that makes a player special, because it’s a difficult thing to do. It’s a team-oriented skill that you need to have. It can’t be overlooked. And I think he’s a team-first guy and it shows, it shows in his play.”
It’s not his point total that makes Toews so good, and so valuable. Even with 506 of them in just 565 games, that’s not why he’s considered by so many to be one of the two or three best players in the NHL. It’s his defense. It’s his savvy. It’s his prowess in the faceoff circle, in the corners, in his own zone. It’s his penalty killing and his power-play work. It’s his willingness to sacrifice his individual stats for team success.
Barely a week after captaining the Hawks to the Stanley Cup for the third time in six seasons, Toews is in Las Vegas for Wednesday’s NHL Awards. He’s a finalist for two very Toews-like awards — the Selke Trophy, awarded to the league’s top defensive forward; and the Mark Messier Leadership Award, given out by the famed Oilers and Rangers captain for the intangibles that have made Toews famous. The Hart Trophy likely will go to Montreal goaltender Carey Price, who’s a finalist alongside Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and the Islanders’ John Tavares.
Tavares lost in the first round. Price lost in the second round. Ovechkin lost in the second, too.
“You can talk about the trophies of the regular season all day long, but at the end of the day, he won the trophy that all the players want,” Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said. “I don’t think he really worries about that. I think he’s pretty happy with his three Stanley Cups instead of three Hart trophies.”
Toews has three Stanley Cups. Two Olympic gold medals. Two World Junior championships. One world championship. One Conn Smythe Trophy. One Selke Trophy.
At this point, there’s not much more that can be said about Toews. So with many of the league’s biggest stars gathered in Las Vegas, we asked them to do it, instead. Ask nine NHL stars what separates Toews from the rest, and you get nine variations on a theme. Here they are:
For Jets captain and former Hawks teammate Andrew Ladd, it’s the leadership: “The way he prepares himself on and off the ice, year-round, it’s amazing to watch. So I think that rubs off on his teammates and definitely rubbed off on me when I was there. I think his will to win is probably second to none in the game. That, to me, is what separates him from other players. He comes up big in big games. When I was playing with him, you could always count on him to come up with a big play or a big goal at big times.”
For Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, it’s the selflessness: “He’s a fantastic player. And he does it in both ends of the ice. … Offensively, I still think he’s one of the top five players in the league, without a doubt. He’s a very special player. [He and Anze Kopitar] both take a lot of pride in the defensive game. They know that in order to have a winning team, your top players need to play that good defensive style of game. Yeah, they could have more points and put up the points some of the other guys put up, but they don’t.”
For Islanders captain John Tavares, it’s the mental toughness: “Being asked to play a lot of minutes and [take on] a lot of responsibility in all areas of the game, you never see his attitude or his demeanor waver, whether things are going well or things are not. He just brings that same level of intensity, competitiveness, drive and determination to find a way to get the job done. Whether that’s putting the puck in the net, or [playing] a lot against the other team’s top lines, and making sure he’s doing a lot of things well away from the puck. I think it’s just his overall ability to stay at that high level over a long season. Staying ready for that type of consistency is very hard to find, and to come by.”
For Letang, it’s the effort: “He does everything well on the ice. He’s a good offensive player, but he’s good on draws, he’s good defensively, he’s responsible. Usually, you can take a chance against a guy that plays only one side of the ice and think he’s not going to come back. He’s always back. He always wants to help his defensemen.”
For Subban, it’s the consistency: “He’s been great at every level that he’s played, whether it’s college or World Juniors or the NHL. He’s always been an elite player.”
For Ovechkin, it’s the sacrifice: “You can see the teams who won the Cup. Basically they don’t have the one guy who dominated. They have the whole team dominate.”
For Stars captain Jamie Benn, Dallas captain, it’s the total package: “It’s just the way he goes about his game. The compete [level] is outstanding. He plays a 200-foot game. He’s one of the best defensive forwards in the league. He pretty much does everything so well, that’s what makes him so special. It’s hard to play against a guy like that. It starts in the faceoff dot, and he plays hard for 60 minutes every game and his teammates follow him.”
For Bruins center and fellow Selke finalist Patrice Bergeron, it’s the consistency: “The way that he’s won in all the levels he’s played, and his consistency on the ice and just his work ethic and the way that he competes is definitely something that we should all look at and try to implement that into your game. He’s definitely a great player, and I have a lot of respect for him.”
And for Sharks defenseman Brent Burns, it’s simple: “Winning. I think that’s the difference, really. He wins.”
And what could be more valuable than that?