TORONTO – Jonathan Toews is ruminating on the eternal quest for balance.
When asked what discoveries he’s made during a reflective off-season, the Chicago Blackhawks captain gently taps the table for emphasis as he works his way through an anecdotal response. He uses his left hand while discussing his early years in hockey and switches to the right when comparing it to the way the NHL’s reigning rookie of the year took to the sport.
“I think one of the stories I liked a lot was a guy like Auston Matthews,” said Toews. “He had his skating coach (Boris Dorozhenko) and he worked on skill and it didn’t sound like he played a whole lot of competitive hockey until he was almost into his teens. That, to me, is pretty interesting because for me I was so competitive and so concerned about winning every single game and every single tournament, always trying to be the top scorer. It was always about winning.
“So I feel like there’s two sides to that coin; there’s one where you’re process-, skill-, skating-, puckhandling-, movement-oriented and the other side where it’s just pure competition and pure just digging deep and finding whatever you’ve got in those toughest moments. I’m not saying he doesn’t have that, but it would be nice to have that perfect mix of the two.”
It’s the space in between that interests Toews most.
It helps explain what may appear, at first, to be a counter-intuitive approach to an important summer for the 29-year-old centre. Coming off a career-low 21-goal season and a first-round sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators, he decided to back off his training rather than take it up a notch.
Less can be more, he’s learned.
“I think most guys that just get right back into it are doing more damage than good,” said Toews, who has played into late May or June in half of his 10 NHL seasons. “Last summer is the first time I really got the time to train really hard and I might have overdone it in the wrong way. Just worrying about power and strength all the time.
“I came into the season and just couldn’t move, just felt slow. I mean the game is so fast nowadays. It’s kind of a wake-up call in that sense.”
Toews seems to have taken the message to heart. He was in Toronto this week to film a commercial for Canadian Tire and, during a sitdown with Sportsnet, spoke candidly about the evolution of his physical and mental approach.
His recent workouts have largely focused on maintenance and therapy, with an eye towards loosening up his body to allow for better mobility. Taking a cue from the likes of Matthews and Connor McDavid, he will soon resume skating and intends to put more energy into developing the offensive aspects of his game.
“When you see the top players nowadays they’re all on the ice,” said Toews. “They’re on the ice all the time just working on skill and that’s something I’m really going to focus on going forward. Just getting back to playing with the puck, knowing that that’s the type of player I am, and not just being overly concerned with the defensive two-way hockey but knowing that I can go out there and contribute with the best of them, too, if I put my mind to it a little bit more.”
Change has been a constant in Chicago.
The Blackhawks sent their second-leading scorer, Artemi Panarin, to Columbus in a draft day trade for Brandon Saad and lost reliable two-way contributor Marian Hossa because of a skin condition. General manager Stan Bowman also dealt away veteran defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson and backup goalie Scott Darling as part of another off-season of sweeping moves.
As much as Toews laments seeing a longtime teammate in Hjalmarsson go – “he’s put it all on the line for years now” – he’s excited about what’s to come for the new-look Blackhawks.
And while he may be trying to embrace a more process-oriented approach to his craft, the competitor inside remains. He was watching intently as Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby lifted the Stanley Cup for the second straight year in June.
“That hurts,” said Toews. “It always hurts to watch someone else do it. For some reason, you think it’s yours every single year. I think it’s good to let those moments kind of sink in. It’s a different vantage point, for sure, and to watch it – I guess not necessarily just as a fan, but as a player, I think it always stings a little bit more and it kind of lights that fire a little bit, too.”
No one needed to remind him that Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s Penguins now stand even with his Blackhawks at three championships apiece. They are the most accomplished teams of this generation and the conversation about which is the best remains open.
“I remember answering questions after we won in ’15 about whether I thought we were a dynasty or not and I said: ‘Oh you guys can say what you want, but I’m not going to go there,’” said Toews. “So you see Pittsburgh win back-to-back – it’s something that hasn’t been done in a long time – and for sure it’s on your mind that what you’ve just accomplished isn’t that special any more.
“So it’s time to get back to work and get back on the horse.”