November 21, 2018

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Opinion

Toews shifts gears on his perceived decline

The Chicago Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews (19) on the ice in the first period against the New York Rangers at the United Center in Chicago on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. The Blackhawks won, 4-1. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

TRIBUNE MEDIA TNS

The Chicago Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews (19) on the ice in the first period against the New York Rangers at the United Center in Chicago on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. The Blackhawks won, 4-1. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

For a large part of his career, Jonathan Toews was considered by many to be among the best players in the game. While at the height of the hype, Toews was relatively overrated -- being mentioned in the same breath as Sidney Crosby was never realistic -- decline in his game over the previous few NHL seasons has now positioned the veteran Chicago Blackhawks centre 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 aging naturally, and the team around him becoming worse.

While Toews’ offensive production has been on a downward trend since 2014-15 -- troubling, as beginning a noticeable offensive decline at 26 is a little bit early for a star NHLer -- the rest of his game has remained consistently strong.

According to online stats resource Corsica. Hockey, when Toews has been on the ice since 2014-15, his teammates have seen a 2.26 per cent bump in shot-attempt differentials, a 0.32 per cent bump in expected goal differential (based on Emmanuel Perry’s model), and a 4.75 per cent bump in actual goal differential at 5-on-5.

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For a large part of his career, Jonathan Toews was considered by many to be among the best players in the game. While at the height of the hype, Toews was relatively overrated — being mentioned in the same breath as Sidney Crosby was never realistic — decline in his game over the previous few NHL seasons has now positioned the veteran Chicago Blackhawks centre 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 aging naturally, and the team around him becoming worse.

While Toews’ offensive production has been on a downward trend since 2014-15 — troubling, as beginning a noticeable offensive decline at 26 is a little bit early for a star NHLer — the rest of his game has remained consistently strong.

According to online stats resource Corsica. Hockey, when Toews has been on the ice since 2014-15, his teammates have seen a 2.26 per cent bump in shot-attempt differentials, a 0.32 per cent bump in expected goal differential (based on Emmanuel Perry’s model), and a 4.75 per cent bump in actual goal differential at 5-on-5.

Those aren’t necessarily superstar numbers, but they’re uniformly positive.

After a few down years offensively (58 points in 2015-16, 58 in 2016-17, 52 in 2017-18), Toews has rebounded this season, 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 sports analytics company SportLogIQ’s scoring-chance-generating plays as a catchall offensive statistic, it appears Toews has been an exceptional offensive player at 5-on-5 for the past three seasons, but he’s only been benefiting from that play in a small sample size this season.

For each of the past two seasons, the Winnipeg-born Toews has been a top-10 forward in generating scoring chances for his teammates, yet he has seen the lowest personal shooting percentages of his career. It doesn’t make a lot of sense he would have his two worst shooting seasons while seeing his overall offensive play improve drastically, but perhaps there was a shift in Toews’ game to focus more on playmaking volume than getting great shots for himself?

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 (28 goals) than the following two seasons, the shots he was getting on net were of superior quality.

A similar story presents itself for his offensive zone dekes. Toews has been improving both his volume and success rate of beating players 1-on-1 each of the last three seasons — which usually coincides with an increase in goal scoring, either for the player doing the deking or their teammates, but it hasn’t been the case.

Toews’ playmaking has remained excellent, and it appears in 2015-16 he attacked off the rush considerably more often than he does now.

Ironically, through 15 games this season, Toews is receiving fewer passes in the slot than any of the previous three seasons, meaning his goal-scoring has come more from his own play than that of his teammates.

 

I think that may be part of the problem with the perception of Toews’ struggles.

Starting in 2014-15, Toews’ longtime linemate, Marian Hossa, began an offensive decline that resulted in him dropping 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 hockey equipment.

Toews and Hossa were phenomenal in tandem, creating a nice feedback loop of offensive and defensive talent. As Hossa declined and later retired, the Blackhawks have struggled to find linemates in sync with Toews at anywhere near the same level.

This season, it seems winger Alex DeBrincat has become someone who can fill that role. 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 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 his decline is much slower in his early thirties than what most expected after the last couple of seasons.

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

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