Examining Jonathan Toews’ legacy

How will Captain Serious be remembered?

Matthew Rago, Editor-in-Chief

Let’s flashback to 2010. The Chicago Blackhawks, captained by 22-year-old Jonathan Toews, just won their first Stanley Cup Championship since the 1960-1961 season. A dormant fan base is reinvigorated by a long overdue infusion of youth and financial investment. Chicago hockey fans flock to their newfound hero, one worthy of adoration and praise.

Younger fans may not remember, but Chicago Blackhawks fans endured an embarrassingly long spell of incompetence. Under the ownership of Bill Wirtz, the Chicago Blackhawks were the laughingstock of the NHL. The elder Wirtz implemented policies that sabotaged our once-proud Original Six franchise, almost forcing fans to invest in other franchises. Under Wirtz, home games were blacked out on local television, meaning Hawks fans were only able to watch an already outclassed roster when they were further disadvantaged on the road. Despite faltering ticket sales, Wirtz adamantly defended this policy as an incentive for fans to attend home games. He further crippled the Hawks’ culture by alienating legends, alumni and fans alike. When Wirtz passed away in 2007, his son Rocky reversed the majority of his ineffective policies, transforming the Hawks into one of the most valuable franchises in professional sports. A once-moribund franchise was revived.

Toews, the third overall draft pick out of the University of North Dakota, would become the face of that transformation.

“Captain Serious,” as Toews is fondly referred to, would go on to lead the Hawks’ young core to three Stanley Cups over a six-year span, becoming the second-youngest player in NHL history to captain his team to a Stanley Cup. During his peak years, Toews’ combination of leadership and offensive prowess had some debating whether Toews was the best hockey player in the world. After all, it’s difficult to argue against the merit of a player who has won three Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe award (awarded to the most valuable player during the NHL playoffs), a World Championship and an Olympic Gold Medal.

Toews’ elite resume was rewarded with a spot on NHL.com’s Top 100 Players list in 2017. However, that’s when the doubters began to vocalize their objections. Toews earning a top 100 ranking over players such as Jerome Iginla, Joe Thornton, Dino Ciccarelli and Evgeni Malkin initiated a heated debate over whether Toews’ legacy was a byproduct of superior teammates or individual merit. For example, Toews has only amassed 70 points or more twice during his career. For comparison’s sake, Ciccarelli reached that same milestone 10 times, with three seasons of 95+ points; Iginla has scored 70+ points seven times; Thornton and Malkin each have more 100+ point seasons than Toews has 70+ point seasons (Malkin has four 100+ point seasons while Thornton has three). Objectively, it is difficult to argue that Toews has produced at a higher individual level than any of these players.

Toews’ placement on the Top 100 list also coincided with a decline in offensive production. Between the 2014-15 and 2017-18 seasons, Toews failed to crack the 60-point mark, leaving his supporters perplexed while reinforcing the stance of his detractors. Such a negative trajectory in offensive production is often seen in players on the wrong side of age 30. However, Toews’ decline occurred between his age 27 and 29 seasons, seasons that many consider to be the prime of an athlete’s career. Nevertheless, despite his staggered production, Toews was rewarded with a contract that carried an average annual cap hit of $10.5 million, temporarily making him the highest-paid player in the history of the NHL alongside teammate Patrick Kane.

To state it bluntly, Toews’ on-ice contributions have not warranted such a heavy salary cap hit against the Blackhawks. Furthermore, Toews’ slide-in offensive output coincided with the Hawks regression from Stanley Cup favorites to fringe playoff contention. 

Toews’ offensive inconsistencies have been polarizing and frustrating for Blackhawks fans, a fanbase that expects Toews to capably lead their first-line. Instead, the Hawks were forced to salvage Toews by reuniting him with Patrick Kane, sacrificing invaluable offensive depth in the process. It’s been discouraging to watch such a highly touted player flounder when tasked with quarterbacking his own line, but that’s the situation the Hawks face. 

Nevertheless, we can’t discount Toews’ intangibles or qualities that are immeasurable by any quantifiable statistic. His leadership proved invaluable during the Hawks’ run of three Stanley Cups in six seasons. His defensive tenacity was rivaled only by an elite few. His ability to serve as a steadying presence during troubling times has always been beyond his years. 

But leadership and composure can only take a team so far. At some point, when a player is monopolizing such a significant portion of a team’s cap space, that player is expected to produce tangible results. When the Blackhawks were forced to sell off some of their most valuable depth pieces, it became Toews’ responsibility to help shoulder the burden and fill the void. Unfortunately, without Patrick Kane’s elite passing ability to play off of, Toews was unable to do that. For years, Hawks fans watched a carousel of interchangeable pieces frequent the top line in hopes of reigniting Toews’ career, only to watch each experiment fail. Then-coach Joel Quenneville was faced with a difficult decision: demote Toews or sacrifice team chemistry by shuffling the lines. Eventually, the Blackhawks were forced to identify Toews as the common denominator. Quenneville, and later Jeremy Colliton, resorted to pairing Toews with Kane, a move that announcers Eddie Olczyk and Pat Foley described as the “nuclear option.”  Toews responded by posting the highest single-season point total of his career

Once the perception of a premature decline dissipates, Hawks fans will remember Jonathan Toews fondly. He will forever be remembered as a fiercely loyal, fearless leader who took a franchise on the brink of disaster and restored its reputation. However, fans of the NHL will remember Toews for having an abbreviated prime highlighted by limited offensive production.  When future generations discuss and dissect what made this decade’s Chicago Blackhawks so great, they will credit Patrick Kane for being our offensive cornerstone. They will also identify that while Toews was a valuable offensive piece, Toews was unable to succeed as a No. 1 option on his own line. Critics will argue that any captain can win when their team’s third line rivals most teams’ first line. And those arguments will hold merit.

However, it’s hard to argue against the notion that Jonathan Toews was the right man on the right team at the right time. Just as Hawks fans were ready to abandon their franchise, Toews (alongside Kane) infused fresh energy into a forlorn fanbase. He shoulders a defensive burden that Kane is either unwilling or unable to carry. At his best, he imposes his will on opposing forwards with suffocating defense and dazzling stickhandling skills. 

Toews captured the hearts of Chicago Blackhawks fans. Unfortunately, barring a late-career resurgence, his legacy might not hold up to increased scrutiny.