During the second half of practice on Wednesday, I watched Jonathan Toews working with what could be a power play unit for the Blackhawks this season. He was on the ice with Tyler Johnson and Seth Jones, who have been teammates for more than a few weeks, as well as two new additions to the roster: Max Domi and Andreas Athanasiou.
Toews talked a little with Jones and Johnson about where they were at on the ice and positioning, passing and speed of puck movement. But with Domi and Athanasiou the focus was as much on physical movement and how to get the puck where it needs to be – the back of the net – as it was about the structure of the system.
New assistant coach Derek Plante, who will manage the power play this year, interjected a few comments but it was mostly Toews running the show.
Toews is entering his 15th season as the Blackhawks’ captain – the longest tenure of any captain in the long history of the organization. He was named the captain on July 18, 2008 – making him the third-youngest captain in NHL history at 20 years 79 days old.
This is new territory for Toews. In 2008, he was named the captain of a team that was on the rise. At least inside the organization, there was confidence that the Blackhawks were headed in the right direction. In the years that followed, the Blackhawks returned to the playoffs and won three Stanley Cup championships. This year’s team is trying to be… the 2005-06 Blackhawks that landed the third overall pick that became Toews.
Toews has dealt with his share of health issues throughout his career, but bounced back every time to perform well on the ice. He needed to step away for an extended period after the pandemic bubble “playoffs” and did not play in the 2021 season. His return last year found a team that was struggling with an awkward mix of talent on the ice, a mediocre coach and an organization in turmoil. He struggled to get his offense going but his second half showed that there’s still some gas left in the tank for 19.
Beginning this season, Toews is healthy and ready to work. I asked him how he feels earlier this week and he smiled, saying he feels great. But he’s doing as much leading as a coach on the ice now as he has at any point in his career as the Blackhawks turn the roster over into younger players and so many new faces.
Working with new head coach Luke Richardson has been a breath of fresh air for Toews (and Patrick Kane). A coach who has more than 1,400 games on his resume understands what it takes to get on the ice every night. But, more than that, Richardson’s transparent wanting of Toews and Kane to play more significant leadership roles this year has given both a chance to be more vocal on the ice.
The new and young players have benefitted from being able to work with Toews.
“Any time you can work with a guy like Tazer it’s pretty special,” Reese Johnson said. “I was fortunate to get to be able to live with him for a couple months last year so I learned a lot from him off the ice, too. He’s an unreal leader on the ice at the rink but he’s an even better guy off the ice to learn from about life. And the way he carries himself off the ice is special so I’ve been fortunate to learn from a guy like him.”
Johnson is one of the young centers in the organization who’s working to establish himself on the NHL roster more full-time this season. Richardson spoke about Johnson being a physical player on the ice and what he likes about his game on Wednesday, but it was clear in my conversation with Johnson that he has really watched, listened to and learned from Toews a great deal during his time in Chicago.
Another center looking to make a significant role for himself on the NHL roster this season is Sam Lafferty. I wrote about Lafferty’s understanding of his role this season – as a penalty killer who plays with energy – and one player who has helped him grow his game since arriving in Chicago has been Toews.
Lafferty echoed Johnson’s comments about playing for a leader he considers to be among the greatest to ever wear the “C” in the NHL.
“[Toews is consistent] every day on the ice and off the ice and interacting with him,” Lafferty said. “I’ve known Tazer for a few years from working out at the same gym in the offseason but to be able to see him at the rink every single day and talk to him on the plane and get to know him better. He’s someone I look to as a mentor and I learn a lot from him.
His attitude is consistent. He’s always positive and engaging all the players. It’s no wonder why he’s been captain and probably one of the best captains to ever play. It’s amazing how he brings that work ethic on the ice every day.”
The future is muddy for Toews now. Media members are going to float trade rumors and ask him about being in the final year of his contract the entire year. And, now 34 years young, Toews is at a stage where he might not admit it but he knows his place in the Hockey Hall of Fame is secure.
The immediate future for Toews is on the ice with an evolving Blackhawks team. And he’s taken the charge of being a captain to another level with his leadership and coaching on the ice.