Experience is a huge deal. As is leadership — something Jonathan Toews knows well. I mentioned in this morning’s bullets an interview Mark Lazerus of The Athletic did with Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson while the team was in Anaheim. Circling back to that article, here’s what Davidson had to say about Toews’ role in the room this season:
But [Toews has] been an amazing leader as always with this group. I think he’s been one of the main reasons for our success early on with the production, and then also just the leadership and how he’s brought the group together — different things like putting together some team-building stuff off the ice. He’s been great about that. He has a lot of value for us.
After a year away, Toews rejoined the team last season and fought through struggles the likes of which he hadn’t experienced as an NHL player. He was trying to find his game and get things clicking on the ice — all while the organization around him — its captain — imploded.
After Stan Bowman was punted and Jeremy Colliton received his one-way ticket to anywhere, the Blackhawks ship turned course a little. But it was still an awkward, broken season for everyone involved. The summer that followed brought more upheaval in the organization, this time on the roster.
The group put together by GMKD and his staff is playing much better than anyone outside the Blackhawks’ dressing room thought they would, and that’s a direct reflection on the room itself. And Toews’ leadership on this team has been noticeable from the jump this season.
We’ve seen plenty of in-game adjustments and changes from one game to the next from the team, which is a credit to the new coaching staff led by Luke Richardson. And that difference is not only something some of us notice in the box score. It’s very real.
A couple weeks ago I wrote about the Blackhawks being the best team at the faceoff circle in the entire NHL. That was before the Kings game, in which everyone on the Blackhawks roster struggled badly for the first time this season. In the second game against the same team, Chicago reversed course and handled their business as we’ve come to expect this season thus far.
In the first game, LA came into Chicago and won 60 percent of the draws. For his part, Toews won 3 of 16 faceoffs in regulation (and then his only one in overtime before he scored the game-winning goal).
One week later on their ice, Chicago flipped the script and won 68 percent of the faceoffs. Toews won 18 of 21 faceoffs in the game — a dominant performance against a team he’s had his share of battles over the years.
I asked Toews about the differences between the two games against the Los Angeles Kings, specifically at the dot, in the context of what the Blackhawks are doing differently this year to make adjustments in games and between matchups against opponents.
“I think with Laffer and Domes and Jujhar or whomever is down the middle taking draws, I think it’s just a pride thing,” Toews said after the morning skate on Monday. “I think it helps a lot especially when you’re on the penalty kill or taking d-zone draws in big situations, it’s not only the centermen but everyone chipping in those moments. When we keep coming up with possession it makes it hard on other teams to generate anything or sustain anything in your zone so I don’t know if its something we’ve over-prepared for but we have experience down the middle with guys who are ready when they step in the circle and they’re working and competing to win those draws.”
At the risk of banging on the same drum as I have since the start of training camp, when he answered this way it got my attention. “It’s a pride thing” and “we have experience down the middle with guys who are ready” are a couple things maybe some people on the outside thought the Blackhawks had recently but it didn’t always show up in the box score or the standings.
A follow-up question to Toews asked about how things have been different this year and how he feels about the room with Richardson calling the shots one month in. There have been plenty of times Toews has been asked about Richardson’s demeanor as the head coach or how he’s helped the team improve this season. But this time, Toews opened up a little more than he had previously.
“One of the biggest things comparing to teams the last few years regardless of what you have on paper it doesn’t really matter if there’s no stability and consistency. Through our lineup guys know what their roles are and what to expect from each other and what we all need to bring to find a way to win the game that night. When your job and your role is straightforward and aside from that everyone’s bought in and everyone’s chipping in, it’s a much more clear cut what you have to do in a game.
“Whereas the last few years we’ve been all over the place. Some nights it looked like effort was there and some others it looks like it’s not but I think it comes down to simplicity. [Richardson] has the presence. The other night he came into the locker room after a not-so-great first period in Anaheim and he didn’t scream and yell and get emotional. He was stern but demanded more of us and we went out there and played better and responded. He’s a solid coach and a great leader who we’re all responding to right now.”
As these words came from the captain it captivated my attention. He doesn’t need Dwayne Johnson to dust off his old schtick as The Rock to yell at him to “Know your damn role!” Toews is getting some respect from his head coach and the guys have all bought in and we can see the contributions coming from every part of the roster.
Richardson was asked after the morning skate about his approach to the first intermission in Anaheim and he just said they’re men and want to be treated like men so he treated them as such. Seems pretty simple, right? No shouting or flipping tables. Just a calm “You’re a professional and this is the NHL so do your job or someone else will” comment before getting into the X’s and O’s of where they needed to improve.
Richardson’s been the perfect coach for this roster. And Toews’ leadership continues to show itself as he works on making his team better. They’re a good match.