Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews revamps game to try to rejoin elite centers

A few days after the Predators ejected the Blackhawks from the playoffs with a stunning first-round sweep, Hawks captain Jonathan Toews provided an unvarnished assessment of his disappointing season and playoff series.

"There are some things I have to reevaluate and think about this offseason," Toews said April 22. "I didn't get to the level I needed to be to help our team survive a little bit longer in this last series, so I have to be responsible for that."

Nearly six months have passed since that statement. Six months to let the disappointment linger from that defeat and six months to correct what went wrong.

After previous playoff exits, Toews and the Hawks could console themselves that they were a bounce here or there away from moving on, but the Predators loss was different. They had to confront the fact they just weren't good enough, and for Toews that meant a deep reflection of how he needed to evolve his game after the last two seasons — seasons in which he posted the lowest points per game averages of his career.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself, especially these last couple of years," Toews told the Tribune. "I had expectations. And I think I make things harder on myself and my linemates especially when I go on the ice with that expectation.

"(I need to) play loose and have fun and just let things happen a little more, learn to have a looser grip on how things are going on the ice and allow myself to make mistakes. The best players in the game, they're out there, they're not afraid to make mistakes and take some risks here and there."

Not 19 anymore

The reinvention of Jonathan Toews is more than just a mindset. It required a significant retooling of how Toews attacked his offseason workouts, with two goals in mind: to emphasize rest and recovery after dealing with nagging back injuries and to focus on speed and mobility training. Toews didn't have to work harder in the weight room, but he had to work smarter.

"He's not that 19-year-old kid anymore," said David Toews, Jonathan's younger brother. "He realized the last couple of years after those long seasons that his body has started to feel the wear and tear of long seasons. When you're not giving yourself any type of break, going right into summer and training as hard as you possibly can, sometimes it's not the right thing."

Jonathan Toews, 29, said early in his career he focused on building strength, especially in his legs, but as he gets older he needs to find a way to add speed and quickness back to his game. The sport is getting faster, and players like Connor McDavid show you don't have to be all that physical to be an elite player. Toews said he also watched closely as Patrick Kane's numbers soared the last two seasons and Nick Schmaltz found success as a rookie playing the speed game.

"I just kind of turned into a player that seemed to play a heavy game down in the corners," Toews said. "Not that I want to leave that in the past — that's obviously a big part of the way I played — but getting up and down the ice is getting harder and harder with the speed of the game."

A new approach

That has meant altering his workout routines to include more repetitions focused on mobility. David Toews said Jonathan would still put in three to four hours per day in the gym but Jonathan did not overburden himself with weight training.

"In a game, you need that range of motion and mobility, and he put a lot of emphasis into that and making sure his muscles and body are recovered before he does anything," David Toews said. "He was more focused on making sure when he was doing explosive movements and things that are weight-bearing, he was doing them at 100 percent and not just doing mindless reps. There's a bit more focus on good reps, good solid reps and also taking care of your body."

That last part became more important than ever this offseason for Jonathan Toews, who missed time last season because of back problems and played through them at other times.

Toews' agent Pat Brisson said Toews has a great understanding of his immune system and will take a mixture of natural anti-inflammatory medications and herbs to aid his recovery.

"His body is different than when he was 20 or 21 and he's constantly searching what's best," Brisson said.

Toews won't admit that his back was an issue against the Predators, but it was clear that the Toews who was able to be bossed around by Ryan Johansen wasn't the same Toews Hawks fans were accustomed to seeing come playoff time.

"There's a lot of little injuries that can add up and you don't want them to manifest themselves into anything serious," Toews said. "I dealt with back issues last year and didn't think I'd be dealing with that at 28 years old. I think you get to that point where you realize you have to take care of the little things day in and day out."

That performance is not where Toews wants it. A recent NHL Network survey said Toews was only the 12th best center in the league. This comes two years after it was a popular and legitimate debate whether you would rather choose Toews or Sidney Crosby if you were starting an NHL franchise.

"He said it's time for me to prove I'm ahead of their description," Brisson said. "He was pretty silent about it, but I know he wants to beat the current standings."

Toews may have been silent about it, but he noticed it.

"I'd like to think if I'm on my game and playing well that I can move up that list," Toews said. "But I think it comes down to what I do on the ice. I'll worry about that and people can say what they want. The No. 1 thing is I'm good and good for my team."

Added David Toews: "There's always going to be people who are doubting you or saying certain things that, if you're going to take them seriously, they might hurt you and hurt your confidence. But I think he's secure enough in himself and his ability."

Finding consistency

It was February last season when Toews took a stand.

For a season and a half, since the Hawks traded Brandon Saad to the Blue Jackets in 2015, Toews had been juggling linemates. It seemed like every winger in the Hawks system had a chance to play on Toews' left, as players like Viktor Tikhonov and Spencer Abbottdid at one point.

Finally, Toews made a small plea to coach Joel Quenneville: Give me time to develop chemistry with two definitive linemates.

Quenneville listened, and the combination of Toews at center, Schmaltz on the left and Richard Panik on the right proved a potent one, one that revitalized Toews and spurred the Hawks to the top seed in the Western Conference. Toews scored 30 points in 29 games from the start of February through the end of the regular season.

And all throughout training camp, as Quenneville tinkered with different lines, he kept the top line the same with Saad, whom the Hawks reacquired to help jump-start Toews, replacing Schmaltz at left wing.

"I'm just going to go out there and make whoever those two guys are better," Toews said. "You're going to have your off nights, but ... some of those nights where it's maybe not our best game, if we can go out there and find ways to keep the puck and generate, I think as a whole things are going to go better."

Saad said he can notice a difference in Toews' game, and if that assessment is correct then the work Toews put in during the offseason paid off.

"His quickness is up," Saad said. "But the biggest thing for him is sticking to his strengths where he's strong on the puck, and he's going to be that regardless of whether he's a few pounds heavier or lighter."

Healthy, nimbler and faster while still maintaining his strength — that's the kind of player Toews wants to be this season and beyond. It was a change he felt he had to make, or else there would be more days like in April. Toews doesn't want to feel that again if he can help it.

"He's transitioning into the second half of his career," David Toews said. "So there's a lot of things he's working at evolving. He just has to pay attention to himself, really hold up the mirror and be honest with himself."

chine@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @ChristopherHine

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