Chicago Blackhawks: For 3 games, Jonathan Toews was the best player alive

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 06: Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks controls the puck against the Colorado Avalanche at the United Center on March 6, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Avalanche 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 06: Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks controls the puck against the Colorado Avalanche at the United Center on March 6, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Avalanche 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

The season couldn’t have started much better for the Chicago Blackhawks. Their captain Jonathan Toews was a big reason why.

Many years ago now, back when the Chicago Blackhawks didn’t have to beg you to buy tickets or advertise their opponents as a reason for doing so, Hawks fans used to like to joke (at least I still hope it was joking) that Jonathan Toews was better than Sidney Crosby. At that point Toews still had the ring-counter in his favor, and the same amount of gold medals.

It came from Chicago’s, and particularly Hawks fans’, never-ending sense of insecurity. No matter the actual state of things, no one around here ever feels their guy is getting their due and somebody — almost always on the East coast — is getting unwarranted attention. Never mind that the Hawks have been on national television far more than anyone for years now.

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It was never true, of course. Toews has never been anywhere near Crosby, or really a top-5 player, his entire career. He never really challenged for the Hart Trophies that we all assumed he would when he was young. He’s only averaged a point-per-game once, and come close a couple of other times.

Toews’s brilliance was just in his metronomic play. You knew exactly what you were getting: He would always be in the right place at the right time, he would never stop working, and together with Marian Hossa, they would simply bully the opposition around and into chances and goals. It was never flashy. It rarely brought you out of your seat. Toews was just “there.”

Puck in the corner, he’s there. Defenseman needs an outlet from behind his own net, Toews was there. Chance to be finished around the net? Toews was there. You never really saw him get there, but there he appeared anyway.

And then he stopped being there. Hossa wasn’t as dominant, and instead of Toews being there, he suddenly was “not there.” He still pushed around most shifts, but more were even or worse than before.

And maybe because it wasn’t flashy, or maybe because there weren’t as many highlights or skills as easy to identify as Patrick Kane‘s, the blame for the Hawks’ struggles in the ’17 playoffs and all of last year was laid at Toews’s skates a lot. It didn’t help that Ryan Johansen kicked him every which way in that ’17 sweep by Nashville. It didn’t help that he had his most snake-bitten season last year, when he did most things right but nothing went in.

Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago Blackhawks /

Chicago Blackhawks

Or maybe it was that Toews exhibited interests in things out side of hockey. Because there’s no greater sin to Chicago sports fans than having a brain and using it if you’re an athlete. Toews would hardly be the first. If you have interests away from work and yet you’re not producing like you used to, clearly it’s because you’re not focused. That’s always the conclusion around here.

Toews vowed to change. We’d heard it before. He needed to get lighter, as he got bigger when the league got faster. Perhaps there just isn’t life after 30 for a player that treated every shift like an American Gladiator competition.

Well, Toews has had something for you all these first three games.

Sure, the five goals are easy to notice. The hat-trick consisting of all goals that either brought the Hawks back or won the game against the Blues are easy to notice. What’s not is the way he’s bullying his shifts again.

It’s only three games. It seems nearly impossible he could do this for 82. But once again, Toews is “there.” And not only that, you see how he’s getting there, because he’s squirting past people or just going over them. If the puck’s around, so is Toews. And he’s not afraid to try things.

There isn’t a number I can point to tell you he’s going to do this all year, other than he’s averaging nearly five shots per game. That might not last, but it’s a really good sign. Having Alex DeBrincat with him to open up passing lanes and make those plays and let Toews play without the puck some more certainly helps. Toews hasn’t played with this level of a playmaker in years.

But for at least three games, Toews reminded Hawks fans what he used to do night after night. While never the best, he was amongst them. When he was on the ice, he ran things, even if it didn’t come in neon colors. He went where he wanted to, with or without the puck, and when it was going the wrong way he almost always put an end to it.

It’s been like that so far. Maybe that’ll be it. Maybe it’ll go on for a little while longer. But, Toews has reminded all that it’s still there.

Perhaps a player that captained the only three Cup winners that anyone who wasn’t alive for the release of a Beatles album are the only three Cups we’ve known should have had more leeway. He should always have the respect of Hawks fans, as it’ll be only about seven minutes after he retires that his #19 will go up to the rafters.

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Or maybe Toews is fine with it being a challenge. Maybe he’s just going to make you notice again. If nothing else for these three games, he’s provided hope that there’s more to watch. I’ll settle for that happily.