First and foremost, losing Jonathan Toews for the season was a massive blow that was in no way *good* for the Chicago Blackhawks. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say that, but obviously the headline opens the door for a nuanced discussion, and I just didn’t want that part to be lost upfront. Toews’ absence (due to an undisclosed illness/injury) has sucked for him, the organization, and the broader Blackhawks fan community. Period. We all good there? Okay.
Because as Mark Lazerus and Scott Powers examined in their latest at The Athletic, calculating the impact Toews has on the team on and off the ice proved to be a complicated subject. On the ice, the Blackhawks rode the struggle bus all season when it came to generating offense, winning faceoffs, defending, and pretty much every other aspect a team needs to be successful. But with Toews not around the team and not part of the lineup, the Blackhawks were able to provide a rare opportunity for others to step into those roles and grow (or, similarly, to be evaluated). And that was, in isolation, a good thing.
And it’s not all backwards looking.
While a recent report that Toews is expected to return to the Blackhawks next season is – of course – amazing news (his health comes above all else), his return to the lineup will be complicated. At least one team source explained how the vacuum Toews left behind probably helped the younger players buy into head coach Jeremy Colliton’s methods and vision for the team.
“Nobody’s dumb enough to say that (the Blackhawks) were better off without Jonathan Toews,” the source said. “Of course, you’d rather have Jonathan Toews around. Great player, great leader, everything people say he is.”
“It’s probably helped not having him there questioning things, or having an issue with the system and all that stuff as the guys bought in,” the source said.
Toews saw almost all of his success with the Blackhawks organization come under the reign of Joel Quenneville, a coach that presents a stark difference from Colliton (and it’s no secret that the veterans of the Blackhawks locker room loved Quenneville). But as he was replaced with Colliton early in the 2018-19 season, it took time for the team to make the transition on and off the ice with a coach making his NHL debut while being younger/the same age as some of the players on his roster. Naturally, that was less of an issue this season, even if it came at a cost.
Let’s Pump the Breaks
Now, this isn’t to say that Toews and Colliton have it out for each other – indeed, there’s no evidence of that whatsoever. But the veteran leadership of the Blackhawks (Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Kane), did have to alter significant portions of their game/routines on the ice under Colliton. It’s easier for a younger, more NHL-fresh player to come in and buy into a new system, and, indeed, remain on the same page with fewer (if any) voices pushing back.
Again, the goal here isn’t to say the Blackhawks were better off without Toews – they weren’t – but rather to identify the ways in which his absence may not have been a total loss (i.e. more playing time for youngsters, an easier path for adoption of Colliton’s system, etc.)
In any case, as the 2021 season comes to a close, and the team begins to prepare for 2021-22, a potential Toews return will create some challenges with respect to the lineup. Certainly, that’s a problem the Blackhawks prefer to the alternative, but it’d be naive to ignore it altogether.
Working Out the Lineups
With the emergence of the young forward and rookies group this season, many lineup spaces for next year have names penciled into them already. Even with guys needing new contracts this offseason, it’s clear that players like Brandon Hagel and Pius Suter are going to be in Chicago’s plans moving forward.
With Toews returning, you knock down the centers one line each, meaning Suter likely becomes your third-line center, Kirby Dach will be your second-line center, and if he gets a new deal this summer, David Kämpf remains the fourth-line center. So what happens with guys like Dylan Strome, Philipp Kurashev, and Adam Gaudette?
Kurashev can play wing, but is more comfortable playing center, as is Strome. Gaudette would need a new deal this offseason, but if he gets it, he’d likely end up on the wing where he has played since coming to the Blackhawks at the trade deadline.
Then you factor in Henrik Borgström and Lukas Reichel, two players that the Blackhawks have eyes on coming to the NHL next season, and both of whom play center. Maybe with the return of Toews in the cards, Reichel stays in Europe another year or comes to North America and plays a season in the AHL with the IceHogs. Borgström remains in the plans for Chicago next season, and would likely be in the mix to play center, but there’s only four spots to fill and if Toews is back healthy along with Dach, Suter, and Kämpf, there’s not much more the Blackhawks can do other than rotate them until each spot is won, like a goalie competition. But even that’s not an exact science, as we have seen this past season.
Ultimately, I encourage you to read the full work of Powers and Lazerus in The Athletic piece, it’s loaded with awesome insight and numbers into the absence of Toews this season. And it makes you hopeful for the 2021-22 season, when a fully healthy and productive Toews can come back ready to lead the Blackhawks once again.