Jonathan Toews looked absolutely gassed by the end of the 2018-19 season.
Generally, one of the toughest players to knock off the puck on any given night, “Captain Serious” was on his butt seemingly as often as he was on his skates. He finished strong on the stat sheet with six goals and 18 points in his final 21 games, but the puck domination just wasn’t there.
Toews didn’t look like the captain of a team that was angry about missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008. He looked tired. He looked his age as he tried to keep up with a game that progressively is getting faster and faster with every passing season.
“I wouldn’t say it’s harder to keep up, but there’s definitely weaknesses in your game that you have to work on and get better at,” Toews told gathered media during the team’s recent locker cleanout day. “There’s so many great young players that come in so physically prepared every year.
Missing the postseason is never preferable. Games during the playoffs generate cash by the boatloads for owners, give fans a reason to remain engaged with the brand and players survive the grueling 82-game grind with the Stanley Cup looming as the light at the end of the tunnel.
There is a bit of a silver lining as the Chicago Blackhawks watch the first round unfold from the comfort of home, and that’s the fact that they are at home resting comfortably. Would Toews and the rest of the ‘Hawks prefer to be doing battle with the likes of the Vegas Golden Knights and Nashville Predators?
Of course, they would. But a longer-than-usual offseason could be exactly what Toews needs to reinvigorate his game after a disappointing 2017-18.
Since the former North Dakota standout made his playoff debut in 2008, only two players — Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp — have appeared in more postseason games than Toews. Hossa and Sharp have skated in 130 contests, while Toews has appeared in 128. That’s more than a season and a half worth of hockey tacked onto 791 regular season games that he’s appeared in since 2007.
Let’s not forget about the two Olympic appearances Toews has made either. It could easily be argued that no one has played more meaningful hockey with more responsibilities on a nightly basis than Toews. And as anyone who has ever turned 30 will tell you, that kind of stuff can weigh on you a bit more heavily at that age than it does when you’re a teenager.
As a modern-day dynasty, the Blackhawks always have a target on their backs. It doesn’t matter whether or not they are headed for the playoffs; no one in the NHL approaches those games lightly. It’s a contest that gets circled on the calendar, and you know that Blackhawks fans are going to come out in droves no matter what city the team is playing in.
It all builds up and amounts to one giant weight on the back of Toews. Of course, he gets paid handsomely to handle those kinds of pressures. And he’s established himself as one of the strongest leaders in the sport over the last decade-plus by virtue of his on-ice performances.
But sometimes a person simply needs a break. A little bit of extra rest to recharge the batteries before rolling again.
We know that NHL players typically start to lose some of their offensive touch as they approach and hit the age of 30. Some individuals can maintain their numbers but, by and large, declines are generally apparent by the time a skater hits 33 or 34. Odds are against Toews being able to live up to his $10.5 million cap hit moving forward, but the sky might not be falling just yet either.
Yes, he endured the worst statistical season of his career in 2017-18, but he still snuck up to the 20-goal plateau and his late-year surge pushed him over the 50-point barrier. The other kicker is that his shooting percentage was well below his established career mark. From 2007 through 2017, Toews scored on 14.6 percent of his shots.
He saw that number collapse down to 9.5 percent this season. To be fair, it was the third consecutive year where Toews saw his shooting percentage decline, but even a tick or two in the other direction would make a noticeable difference in his final numbers. We wouldn’t be so worried about him if he had cracked 60 points, so it seems silly to be overly concerned with an eight-point difference.
The ice still tends to shift in Chicago’s direction whenever Toews is playing, and a small rebound in shooting percentage would push Toews closer towards the numbers we’re used to seeing. He’s not going to generate $10.5 million worth of points, but there are maybe six or seven forwards in the NHL at any given time who can create that kind of value.
Toews is going to rest up this summer and he’ll be looking stronger on his skates come October. The Blackhawks are going to be fired up to a man, and their captain will be starting the campaign with more gas in the tank than maybe he’s ever had.