Special to the Winnipeg Free Press
For a large part of his career, Jonathan Toews was considered by many to be among the best players in the game, and while at the height of the hype surrounding him he was relatively overrated, being mentioned in the same breath as Sidney Crosby was never realistic, decline in his game over the previous few seasons has now positioned him as a fairly underrated player.
Perception is a strange thing, and it’s amazing how quickly it can change when you have the combination of a player ageing naturally, and the team around him becoming worse.
The fact is that while Toews’ offensive production has definitely been on a downward trend since 2014-15, and that may be troubling considering beginning a noticeable offensive decline at 26-years-old is a little bit early for a star NHLer, but his game outside of offence has remained consistently strong,
According to Corsica.Hockey, while Toews has been on the ice since 2014-15, his teammates have seen a +2.26% bump in shot attempt differentials, A +0.32% bump in expected goal differential based on Emmanuel Perry’s model, and a +4.75% bump in actual goal differential at 5-vs-5. Those aren’t necessarily superstar numbers, but they’re uniformly positive, and impressive considering Toews doesn’t get to have Patrick Kane riding shotgun, his relative statistics actually compete with Kane’s.
After a few down years offensively, this season has seen Toews rebound back onto the scene, on pace for 44 goals and 71 points, so what has changed for the 30-year-old centre who prides himself on being a 200-foot player?
Using SPORTLOGiQ’s scoring chance generating plays as a catch-all offensive statistic, it appears that Toews has been an exceptional offensive player at 5-vs-5 for the past three seasons, but he’s only been reaping the benefits from those plays in a small sample size this season.
In fact, for each of the two years preceding this one, Toews has been a top-10 forward in the NHL in generating scoring chances for his teammates, yet he has seen the lowest personal shooting percentages of his career in 2016-17 and 2017-18. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that he would have his two worst shooting seasons while seeing his overall offensively play improve drastically, but perhaps there was a shift in Toews’ game to focus more one playmaking volume than getting great shots for himself? We can check that out.
Interestingly, Toews has been increasing his high danger or inner slot scoring chances each of the previous three seasons, and the same goes for his chances from the high slot. So in reality, while he scored more in 2015-16 than the following two seasons, the shots he was actually getting on net were of superior quality.
A similar story is there for his offensive zone dekes, he’s been improving both his volume and success rate of beating players one-on-one each of the last three seasons, which usually also coincides with an increase in goal scoring, either for the player doing the deking or their teammates, but it just hasn’t been the case.
Toews’ playmaking has remained excellent, though it seems to have peaked in the two seasons where he scored the least, and it appears that back in 2015-16 that he attacked off the rush considerably more often than he does now.
Ironically, this year Toews is receiving fewer passes in the slot than any of the previous three years, meaning his goal scoring has come more from his own play than that of his teammates, and I think that may be part of the problem with our perception of Toews’ struggles.
Starting in 2014-15, Toews’ longtime linemate Marian Hossa began an offensive decline that saw him drop from a regular 30-goal and 60-point per 82 games player down to a 20-goal scorer that averaged closer to a half point per game before he essentially retired due to an allergic reaction to his equipment.
Toews and Hossa were phenomenal in tandem, creating a nice feedback loop of offensive and defensive talent. As Hossa declined and then retired, the Blackhawks have struggled to find linemates that are in sync with Toews at anywhere near the same level, and it wouldn’t be surprising if part of the reason they re-acquired Brandon Saad was in search of re-igniting that flame.
This year it seems like Alex DeBrincat has become someone who can fill that role, and as a result all the good work Toews has put in over three seasons is beginning to bear fruit, and his normal status as a high percentage shooter has returned, with an increased focus on creating more and better scoring chances at the same time.
This isn’t to say that prime era Toews is going to return and we’ll see several seasons of 35 goals and flirting with a point per game, but don’t be surprised if Toews’ decline is much more slow in his early thirties than what most expected after the last couple of years.