TORONTO – We’re talking to Jonathan Toews, the best-paid player in hockey.
A man who already has a cabinet full of Cup rings and gold medals, not to mention a place on the NHL’s Top 100 list before his 29th birthday.
And yet, when told that Auston Matthews has tried to develop his game in a Toews-like mould, the Chicago Blackhawks captain winds up discussing how he looks at players like the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie to mine some ideas for himself.
“There’s always something you can learn, especially from the young players who come into the league,” Toews said before Saturday’s 2-1 overtime victory by the Blackhawks. “The way they skate. The way they handle the puck. Obviously, the game’s changing quite a bit so you have to tailor your game to that a little bit, too.”
It is here where we find the true secret to the Blackhawks success this last decade.
There has never been a place for complacency in Chicago and that’s why they’ve gone about building the best organization in the sport. When general manager Stan Bowman turned over the roster, coach Joel Quenneville continually reimagined his lineup. In turn, core pieces like Toews and Patrick Kane often found themselves skating alongside the likes of John Hayden and Nick Schmaltz.
Hayden wound up scoring his first NHL goal on Saturday night with help from a gorgeous setup by Toews. Ryan Hartman cashed the overtime winner less than 17 seconds from a potential shootout and you won’t find either of those goal-scorers’ names engraved in the Stanley Cup from Blackhawks victories in 2010, 2013 and 2015.
“They’re a good team and they’re skilled,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “I was impressed with a couple of their kids that I don’t know as good.”
If there is one thing for an aspirational organization to borrow from the Chicago Model, it is this: Establishing a culture where everyone in a position of power and influence continually searches for new ideas and new approaches.
One possibility Toews mentioned for his upcoming off-season is scaling back his usual weight training regiment in favour of spending more time on the ice working on skills.
That is a direct reaction to what he’s seen Matthews and other young players do this season. Toews filmed a Bauer commercial with the 19-year-old Leafs forward last summer and spoke with something approaching reverence about his performance through 70 games as a NHLer.
“You knew he had the talent, but sometimes it’s just a matter of time before it translates to the NHL,” said Toews. “Obviously, he’s wasted no time. So you kind of wonder: If that’s how he comes out of the gate what’s he going to be like in a couple years from now?”
Matthews scored his 32nd goal early in Saturday’s game – ending a seven-game drought in the process. He performed a give-and-go with linemate William Nylander at top speed before beating Corey Crawford.
Without prompting, Toews mentioned Matthews’ upbringing in Scottsdale, Ariz., as the source of his unique gifts. He sees some logic behind focusing heavily on skills development rather than just playing games during the years when a child is still growing into his or her body.
“If you’re not overly competitive and you’re not always worried about winning and being the best and you’re just worried about learning to skate and move properly, I think there’s a huge benefit to that,” said Toews. “Obviously, in his case it’s worked out pretty well. You compare him to guys like (Evgeni) Malkin and even Kaner, the way he handles the puck with his feet moving.
“For a guy that size it’s not that easy.”
This meeting between the Blackhawks and Leafs brought about a lot of comparisons to where Toronto finds itself now and Chicago was in 2008 when Quenneville took over a young team brimming with talent.
The narrative casts Matthews in the role of Toews, and shifty winger Mitch Marner as a next generation version of Kane. Babcock and Quenneville are easily substituted given their strong resumes and standing within the sport.
“Well you hope there’s similarities,” said Babcock. “Q told me the same thing this morning. He said ‘you remind us of nine years ago.’ … But not many teams win three Cups in that period of time they have.”
Even if you’re willing to accept the premise that they’re starting in a similar position to where Chicago once was, the Blackhawks have demonstrated that the ability to evolve is essential to success.
It’s more about the journey than where the trip begins.
In the here and now, Chicago delivered some other lessons in a tightly-contested game that felt an awful lot like the playoffs. The Leafs could at least find solace in the point they earned for getting to overtime – keeping them in wild-card position with Boston set to visit on Monday.
The 2008-09 Blackhawks ended a playoff drought with Toews and Kane leading the way as sophomores, and wound up going all the way to the Western Conference final.
This version of the Leafs would love to just claim a spot in the post-season.
“I think we’re just taking it one day at a time – not getting too far ahead of ourselves,” said Matthews. “We’re still in our first year. For us, I think we’ve just been taking it day by day, trying to get better as a team and progress as quickly as possible. I think we’ve done a pretty decent job of that so far, we’ve come a long way since the beginning of the season.
“We’ve still got quite a bit of way to go, but I think we’re definitely heading in the right direction.”
Clearly, he’s picked up a few things from Toews.