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After two down years, Jonathan Toews determined to get back on top

Jonathan Toews had 58 points in each of the last two seasons. (AP Photo)

Barely 30 months ago — less than a year after winning a second Olympic gold medal and less than a year before winning a third Stanley Cup — Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews casually leaned against a wall outside the visitors’ dressing room in Pittsburgh and sheepishly deflected the idea that many in the hockey world had narrowed down the two best players in the world to Sidney Crosby and himself.

It had become a parlor game of sorts, particularly in Canada, which still was basking in the glow of a dominant Olympic run in Sochi, Russia. If you were starting a team from scratch, whom would you take first, Crosby or Toews? Statistically, it was a one-sided argument in Crosby’s favor. But when it came to the total package — the all-around ability, the two-way game, the relentless work ethic, the indefinable intangibles — those two seemed to be playing a different game than everyone else.

Toews, of course, demurred.

‘‘There’s really no one like him,’’ Toews said at the time. ‘‘I don’t even know how there’s a comparison there.’’

The self-deprecation belied the competitive fire that burns within Toews, a fire that manifests itself in his exhaustive devotion to self-improvement, in his tenacious style of play, in the venom he spews at officials when he thinks he has been wronged and in his menacing glare from the bench.

So how does Toews — a three-time Cup champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and member of the NHL’s 100-greatest-players list — feel about being named the 12th-best center in the league (and the 35th-best player overall) on lists put out last month by the NHL Network’s team of pundits?

Insulted? No.

Angry? Not exactly.

Motivated? Yeah, that’s the word. Just more fuel for the fire that hasn’t stopped raging, even in the wake of two down seasons and two early playoff exits and in the face of questions about Toews’ alleged decline.

‘‘You can’t be insulted, not at all,’’ Toews said. ‘‘I can’t let my ego swell too large where I’m going to be insulted by something like that. The proof is on the ice. If I want to be back on top, I’ve got to go back out there and earn it. It’s that simple.

‘‘It was definitely an honor to be mentioned at the top there for a while. But Crosby’s still on top, and he’s been doing it since those days, too. He hasn’t stopped. So for me, for sure, the motivation is right there to earn that respect back and show the hockey world what I’m capable of. There’s no doubt in my mind I know where I can be as a player, and I’ve got a lot of work to do to get back to that level.’’

Toews is coming off the two worst seasons of his career from a points-per-game perspective. In 2015-16, Toews — perhaps feeling the effects of 11 playoff series in the previous three seasons — had 58 points in 80 games, despite scoring 28 goals for the third consecutive season. Last year, after a four-month summer to rest and recuperate, he had a brutal first half before finishing with 58 points again, this time with a career-low 21 goals.

There’s an easy explanation, of course. For that first season and a half, Toews cycled through more than a dozen left wingers as the Hawks tried to fill the hole left by Brandon Saad with players such as Ryan Garbutt and Viktor Tikhonov.

When Toews finally found a suitable line with Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik, he took off. In his first 43 games last season, he had nine goals and 19 assists. In the 29 games after the line was assembled, he had 12 goals and 18 assists.

‘‘I just tried to take more responsibility on myself,’’ Toews said. ‘‘People kept asking me about the left winger and playing with different guys every night, and it was easy to just focus on other things that you can blame instead of yourself. But it came down to focusing on what I can do to make things easier on my linemates every night.’’

Despite the second-half surge, the Hawks again flamed out in the first round of the playoffs, swept by the Predators. A realization hit Toews hard: The game — spurred partly by the Hawks’ dizzying success in previous seasons — was getting faster and more skilled. And Toews, with his heavier style of play, saw the nagging injuries piling up and the game passing him by.

Toews saw what teammate Patrick Kane was doing at the same age, posting the best two seasons of his career. He saw the flair that Schmaltz brought to the ice, a new generation on the rise. Then he saw his own game and felt plodding and dated, especially in the playoffs against the younger, hungrier Predators.

And he vowed to do something about it.

For the first time, he focused his offseason workouts on speed and agility, not the lower-body power and core strength that have defined him as a player. He wants to be lighter, more nimble, more explosive. The trick is not losing the strength in his legs and trunk that allows him to be ferocious in the corners and impossible to knock off the puck.

‘‘You want to be light and quick out there, but you don’t want to lose your strength,’’ said Saad, who plays a similar game. ‘‘You’ve got to find that happy medium and that balance and see where you feel best at.’’

Toews always has been underrated in the skill department, content to eschew stats and take on tougher defensive assignments while focusing on an all-around game. But at 29 and on the back end of his prime years, he wants to have it all — the speed and the strength, the grace and the grit.

‘‘I just tried to work smarter in a lot of ways,’’ Toews said. ‘‘There’s a lot of years that have been adding up, where you have some little, nagging things that pile up and you want to get rid of. I wanted to get back to just playing more of a skill game, regaining my athleticism, my ability to move laterally and skate with the puck. A lot of that is just being able to get that mobility to skate back. I just worked on a lot of skill, just getting the body to feel right again.’’

Early returns are promising.

It helps that the Hawks addressed the need at left wing by reacquiring Saad from the Blue Jackets, sacrificing the supremely gifted Artemi Panarin in an effort to replace Marian Hossa and reawaken Toews. In other words, Toews needed Saad more than Kane needed Panarin. This is what it had come to for a man who once had been mentioned in the same breath as Crosby and now was lumped in with mere mortals in the third or fourth tier of NHL stardom.

The winger has changed. The workout regime has changed. The mindset has changed. But the motivation remains, as fiery as ever.

Will it all be enough to bring Toews back to that upper echelon, the level at which he thinks he belongs? Toews can’t say for sure, but he can’t wait to find out.

‘‘Oh, it’s exciting,’’ he said. ‘‘You go through different challenges over your career, and it wakes you up a little bit. It gives you a little motivation; it brings that fire back. You realize things are never going to be easy, especially at this level. There’s no doubt getting swept was a wakeup call for all of us. I think we can all take a hard look at ourselves and be better, and that starts with me.’’

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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