Life comes at you fast sometimes.
It was not that long ago that the Chicago Blackhawks were the NHL’s most powerful team on the ice and their captain, Jonathan Toews, was regarded as one of the best players in the league.
Perhaps even, in the opinion of some, the best player in hockey and the one player that you should most want to build your franchise around for both tangible (two-way play, production) and intangible reasons (leadership, the fact the team always won and he was at the center of a lot of it). That status among the league’s elite seems to have taken quite a tumble. So much so that he is apparently no longer even considered one of the best players in the league at his position, let alone overall.
Take, for example, this list of the top-20 centers from this the NHL Network this week that does not include Jonathan Toews.
I don’t want to get too far into an in-depth analysis of the value of such a ranking or a list, and maybe you can quibble with one or two names at the bottom of the list (William Karlsson, for example) but the fact that Toews, one of the most well-known names in the league, one of the highest paid players in the league, on one of the most prominent franchises in the league, can’t crack a superficial list designed to draw interest from casual fans is a damning indictment on how far his star has fallen in a short period of time.
Again: This is a player that just a few years ago was the subject of arguments as to whether or not he was one of the best players in the entire sport. Today the Blackhawks are paying him $10.5 million per season for the next five years (Connor McDavid and John Tavares are the only players in the NHL that will carry a larger salary cap hit this season) and it’s at least debatable, if not factual, that he is no longer one of the league’s top centers.
Just consider that he has not topped the 60-point mark in three years. His 2017-18 performance was the worst of his career offensively and for three years now he has been, at best, second-tier producer offensively.
Here are his ranks among centers in goals per game, points per game, and shot attempt percentage over the past three years.
Again, this is just among centers.
Probably the most encouraging thing about this past season is that his ability to drive possession rebounded in a big way. But that drop in actual offense is significant and jarring. Just for comparisons sake, here are his ranks among centers in the same categories during the six-year stretch between 2009-10 and 2014-15 when the Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups.
Even when he was at his best he was never truly an elite scorer. In his career he has had two seasons where he finished in the top-10 in goals per game league-wide, and zero top-10 finishes in points per game.
Even among centers he was, at his best, just barely inside the top-10 and rarely near the top.
But he was still excellent. He still produced like a top-tier center, and when combined with the defensive play you had one outstanding player. Best player in the league outstanding? Absolutely not. But still outstanding.
The trouble for the Blackhawks is that it is not just the offense that has dropped off so much, as his ability to drive possession also took a pretty significant hit in two of the past three seasons. If he is not scoring like a top-tier center, and he is not helping to dictate the pace of the game like a top-tier center, then there’s not much else to suggest that he is still a top-tier center other than the reputation from his peak years between 2010 and 2015. A reputation that was probably boosted significantly given that the team surrounding him for those six seasons was consistently loaded and always winning.
There is a lot to be said for his defensive game, and it is still held in high regard (at least when you look at the Selke Trophy voting).
But for a $10.5 million cap hit you need to see scoring. You need to see offense. You need to see a player that is going to carry a team in every possible way. And the Blackhawks have simply not been getting that from Toews in recent years, while pretty much every player on the above list that is ahead of him is consistently giving their teams that sort of play, with the one possible exception again being William Karlsson.
But if we are now at the point where it’s a debate as to whether or not Toews is the 18th or 19th best center in the league next to Karlsson, a player that until this season had never scored more than 10 goals in a single season, that has to be a concern for a Blackhawks team that still has more than $50 million committed to him over the next five years.
His play has dropped individually, and when combined with the decline of the Blackhawks as a team it’s seen Toews go from being regarded as one of the best players in the league just three years ago to what is basically now just another guy.