Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews riding remarkable early-season scoring surge
Toews has scored seven goals in 11 games, tied for ninth in the NHL. It represents a stunning revival for the aging Hawks center who scored zero goals and one goal, respectively, in the first 11 games of his last two seasons.
All of a sudden, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews — even at age 34, even while being hounded by trade rumors, even after being plagued by health problems in recent years — can’t stop scoring.
He has racked up seven goals in his first 11 games this season, including five in his last six games. He leads the Hawks in goals — Max Domi and Jason Dickinson are tied for second with four each — and entered Friday ranked ninth in the NHL.
This is the most prolific 11-game start to a season Toews has had, topping his six goals in 11 games to begin 2018-19. In his first 11 games last season, he scored zero goals; in his first 11 games of 2019-20, he scored one goal; in 2020-21, he didn’t play a game.
The reversal of that trend is almost unbelievable, but the pucks keep going in.
‘‘When pucks aren’t going in, it’s usually a sign that maybe you’re overprepared and overthinking things,’’ Toews said Thursday. ‘‘I tend to get myself into those positions a time or two over the years.
‘‘But right now it’s fun to just go play. There weren’t really any [expectations] for our team and for myself, especially this year. I’ve been talking about taking it one day at a time and just going out there and playing — worrying about the next play, the next shift — and that’s what I’m doing. So it’s nice to see the puck luck and the bounces. It’s definitely a good feeling and something I want to keep going.’’
Toews hasn’t been perfect, of course. He made critical late mistakes in two of the Hawks’ recent losses, committing a lazy turnover on an attempted defensive-zone exit that led to the Oilers’ game-winning goal and taking a pointless holding penalty during which the Sabres scored their game-winning goal.
In general, however, Toews has been far better than he was last season — building on the progress he showed last spring — and far better than anyone anticipated this season.
A month ago, the biggest narrative surrounding Toews was whether he would retire when his contract expired next summer. Even after his tremendous performance in the Hawks’ season opener, plenty of questions remained about his physical endurance and mental capacity to tolerate all their expected losses.
Now, he has looked like his old self for a long-enough stretch that most of that doubt has dissipated. The most pressing new question might be whether he’ll remain a capable top-six center just through this season or for several more to come. He looks more than capable anchoring the second line between Philipp Kurashev and Taylor Raddysh.
‘‘He’s obviously scoring, but the way he possesses the puck down low in the offensive zone, it gives our team so much momentum,’’ fellow forward Sam Lafferty said. ‘‘It sucks the life out of the other team and creates chances for us. He’s really leading the way for us.’’
One of Toews’ attributes that never wavered, even in recent years, was his faceoff skill. He won 59.0% of his draws last season, above his impressive career average of 57.1%, and has won an even better 59.4% of his draws this season.
The value of faceoffs is a hot topic in the analytics-driven modern NHL, but Hawks coach Luke Richardson think Toews’ ability there benefits him more than most because starting with the puck reduces the physical wear-and-tear necessary to gain possession.
‘‘It [means] less chasing around for him,’’ Richardson said. ‘‘[For] a guy that’s later in his career, he’s got a lot of mileage, right? That adds up on a body. So when you can have the puck in our hands, you can focus more on offense. He’s a big body, and he’s strong around the net. He’s hard to handle.”
Most of Toews’ goals have been created by his dominance in the dirty areas around the net. Not since the season opener against the Avalanche has he scored via a conventional shot from a reasonable distance (and even that goal was a back-door one-timer into a wide-open net).
He scored on a breakaway against the Sharks, tucking the puck just inside the post on his backhand. He scored into an empty net against the Panthers, winning a race for a cleared puck and wrapping it around from behind the net. He posted up in the crease and deflected in a shot-pass from Domi against the Oilers.
Against the Wild, he poked a loose puck across the line after a centering pass from Kurashev. Against the Islanders, he tipped a point shot by Caleb Jones on its way through the slot (and eventually into the net). And against the Kings on Thursday, he tapped in a cross-crease pass from Jake McCabe for the overtime winner.
Adding it all up, five of Toews’ seven goals have left his stick within a few feet of the goal line. That suggests his production has some sustainability.
He won’t continue scoring on 26.9% of his shots forever (his career average is 9.1%), but he probably will keep scoring regularly. Encouragingly, 81% of his shots have made it on goal this season, the second-best rate on the Hawks and well above his 66% career average.
That backs up the strange-but-true conclusion that Toews in 2022-23 might be more dangerous offensively than ever.
‘‘[Kurashev, Raddysh and I are] really starting to feed off each other,’’ Toews said. ‘‘Even when our legs aren’t there, when you’re not bouncing off the walls with energy, we’re still finding ways to let the puck do the work. We’re staying patient. We know the offensive chances are going to come. So it’s nice to see us having success.’’