‘Fire in his eyes again’

St. Thomas Times-Journal - - SPORTS - STEVE SIM­MONS ssim­mons@post­media.com

For a mo­ment in time, you could have this con­ver­sa­tion: Who was the more valu­able player, Sid­ney Crosby or Jonathan Toews? And it didn’t seem far fetched the way it does now.

Crosby scored the famed Golden Goal at the Van­cou­ver Olympics; Toews led Team Canada in scor­ing in the tour­na­ment.

Crosby’s Pitts­burgh Pen­guins won the Stan­ley Cup in 2009. Toews’ Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010 and he won the Conn Smythe Tro­phy and fol­lowed it up by win­ning Cups in 2013 and again in 2015 in Chicago.

The ar­gu­ment all but ended when the Pen­guins won the Cup the past two years with Crosby tak­ing home the Conn Smythe each time.

So where is Toews now, in his 11th Na­tional Hockey League sea­son with the mag­nif­i­cent Blackhawks, his scor­ing num­bers in de­cline af­ter cap­tain­ing three cham­pi­onships?

Where is he, ranked 27th on TSN’s cu­mu­la­tive list of the Top 50 NHL play­ers. Some play­ers would cel­e­brate that rank­ing. Not Toews. In the pre­vi­ous eight years of the list, he’d never placed lower than eighth over­all.

Twice he was sec­ond be­hind Crosby. Twice he was third.

On this year’s rank­ings, he was 14th among NHL cen­tremen. He was 22nd on my list of Top 50, pro­ject­ing this year’s play­ers for the net­work. And to be hon­est, I felt guilty plac­ing him that low.

It still doesn’t feel right be­cause it’s Toews, the player the great Dave Keon most likes to watch in to­day’s NHL, the cen­tre who is mea­sured more by vic­to­ries than goals scored, mea­sured more by the in­tan­gi­bles that can’t be cap­tured on a chart or a graph. Maybe Keon likes Toews so much be­cause of the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the two.

Jean Be­liv­eau used to say Keon was the most chal­leng­ing cen­tre­man he would match up against. The num­bers didn’t al­ways tell you that: The game did. A lot of the NHL still says the same thing about Toews. They just don’t know who ex­actly he is any­more, where he fits in, or whether he can be a fran­chise changer again.

“The only thing that’s changed is his pro­duc­tion went down,” said Stan Bow­man, the Blackhawks gen­eral man­ager, who will pay Toews more than $13 mil­lion in salary and bonuses this sea­son. “He’s the same player. He still does a lot of stuff that doesn’t show up on the score­sheet. I get why his ratings are down, his points and all, but he’s still some­body ev­ery­body in Chicago be­lieves in. He’s our leader. He sets the pace with his in­ten­sity, his com­pet­i­tive­ness, his lead­er­ship. I think his pro­duc­tiv­ity will re­turn to nor­mal lev­els this sea­son.

“With some play­ers, of­fen­sive pro­duc­tion out­paces their ef­fec­tive­ness. With some guys, it’s the op­po­site. Their ef­fec­tive­ness is higher than what they show on the score­sheet. With Jonathan, even when he’s scor­ing 70-80 points, it’s not the points that de­fine him, it’s about all the other stuff he does.”

Mike Bab­cock un­der­stands all that and be­lieves in it. He had Toews with him in a cen­tral role on the gold medal win­ning Olympic teams in 2010 and 2014 and the World Cup team of 2016.

“I think he’s a con­science for your team,” said Bab­cock. “They (Blackhawks) don’t win any of their cham­pi­onships with­out that guy. He does the right (thing) ev­ery sin­gle day. The big­ger the day, the big­ger the mo­ment, the bet­ter he plays.

In Bab­cock speak, Toews is “a real good man, a real good leader, a real good per­son and a great player.”

The Blackhawks traded for Bran­don Saad, whom they had traded away, os­ten­si­bly be­cause they need- ed some­one to play with Toews. They didn’t have the right fit. They fig­ure Saad is a pair of con­fort­able shoes for Toews.

“When you’re play­ing against the best play­ers on ev­ery team, you need help on your line,” said Bow­man. “Jonathan was be­ing weighed down a lit­tle when he didn’t have the help he needed. I think you’ll see a dif­fer­ent player this year.”

Maybe the Toews of old. Maybe some­one close to that kind of dif­fer­ence maker.

Toews ad­mits hav­ing a long sum­mer, hav­ing more rest — af­ter be­ing elim­i­nated in four for­get­table games last April — helps. He hasn’t had many of those over the years.

This was a sum­mer to get rest, to do more work, if the two in fact are in­ter­change­able. The game has changed, he ad­mits. He needed to work on some things, quick­ness be­ing among them. He wants to ex­pand his of­fen­sive game.

He may never be back in the Crosby con­ver­sa­tion but as Alexan­der Ovechkin is prov­ing once again, one sea­son can have lit­tle to do with the next. It doesn’t mean that Toews can’t be rel­e­vant, im­por­tant, be a se­ri­ous Cap­tain Se­ri­ous once again.

“I was kind of in awe of Taser at such a young age in how fo­cused and ded­i­cated he was,” said the vet­eran Pa­trick Sharp, back with the Hawks again. “Not that that’s changed, but I see the fire in his eyes again.

“More than any­thing, he’s men­tally de­ter­mined to get back to the level he was when he en­tered the league.”

A level that had him be­ing talked about in the same breath as Crosby.


Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Pitts­burgh’s Sid­ney Crosby bat­tle for the puck dur­ing their sea­son-open­ing game last Thurs­day in Chicago. It used to be de­bat­able whether Toews or Crosby was the best player in the NHL; Toews is hop­ing to im­prove his per­for­mance this sea­son and make the de­bate pos­si­ble again.

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