Struggling through his least productive NHL season, Jonathan Toews was admittedly a little puzzled in January when he was selected for his third NHL all-star game.
He called the honour “bittersweet.”
The Chicago Blackhawks captain, who shares the league’s highest cap hit this season with teammate Patrick Kane (US$10.5 million), was tied for 117th in league scoring at the time with just 28 points, and 159th with a mere nine goals.
The 28-year-old has been an offensive juggernaut since, racking up 11 goals and 28 points over his last 26 games, outscoring none other than Sidney Crosby over that span.
Chicago has the NHL’s best record (19-5-2) in that stretch with Kane also re-emerging as an MVP threat.
“You can just tell how much more confident he is with the puck. He’s moving his feet really well (too),” teammate Andrew Desjardins said of Toews. “But I think that all comes into play when the confidence gets going. It’s an automatic thing (snaps fingers) where your feet are moving, you’re comfortable with the puck, you’re fighting off checks. When he’s at his best it’s amazing how good he is in the grind areas protecting pucks.
“I think you can definitely tell when he’s got it going on,” Desjardins added. “He’s pretty hard to get off the puck.”
But from October into January, Toews was lacking that same pop, struggling to chip in offensively even as he remained a steady leader, defensive weapon and faceoff ace. Toews, who’d potted at least 23 goals in each of his first nine seasons, didn’t score goal No. 1 this year until the Blackhawks ninth game and by the time 2016 was through, he had just six goals and 12 assists.
What stuck out to teammates like Desjardins though was how cool and composed Toews remained.
Veteran teammate Jordin Tootoo said Toews kept his “panic button…always on an even-keel,” an approach that helps explain Toews’ spectacular winning ways, including three Stanley Cups and a 47-1-1 record with Team Canada.
“With Toewser, I think at the end of the day it’s mind over matter,” Tootoo said. “He’s got great willpower and belief in himself that eventually things are going to turn around and that’s why he’s a great leader.”
The “mind over matter” mentality is one Toews seems to be working at constantly. His Instagram posts show his admiration for books like “The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph” and “The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance”.
A couple weeks ago he shared a video of himself struggling, with some frustration, to make it onto Chicago’s bench with the caption: “Don’t let the little things get the best of you!”
Toews told reporters in mid-January that he was trying to handle the challenges of his slump with more poise than he might have as a younger player. He was determined to “objectively assess” his game without overreaction.
“I’m trying to learn more and more about my game and what’s good about it and what needs work,” Toews said.
Once a long-time member of division rival Nashville, Tootoo had combatted Toews plenty on the ice in previous years. What he’s learned this season was the Manitoba native’s overarching philosophy to the game: “The more team success (you have) the more individual success you have”.
“To him it’s all about the team and that’s how you win championships,” Tootoo said. “You set aside your individual success for the benefit of the team and he shows great examples of that.
“When he was hitting kind of a rough patch here the team was having success and ultimately that’s all he cared about.”
Blackhawks centre Marcus Kruger said teammates paid little attention to Toews’ struggles in part because his competition level was still so high. He also drew the eye of opponents which opened up space for linemates like Richard Panik, who’s scored a career-best 22 goals already this season.
Desjardins played with likely hall of famers Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau for four-plus seasons in San Jose and found that Toews handled his offensive frustrations in an equally professional way.
“They battle through it,” Desjardins said.
Toews’ personal aim was a heavier game around the net, crashing the crease with the puck where possible. He’s been shooting it a bit more these days, but mostly luck has just come around to his side. He scored only nine times on his first 113 shots this season (eight per cent), connecting on 11 of his next 74 (14.9).
“He was a professional about it and kept working,” Kruger said. “It was nice to see him break through.”
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press