The resurgence of Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews

The resurgence of Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews

Jonathan Toews had sensational underlying analytics last season. When he was on the ice at 5-on-5, the Blackhawks controlled 56.7 percent of the shot attempts and generated 56.3 percent of the scoring chances, according to naturalstattrick.com. He was among the NHL's leaders in both categories.

And yet, Toews went through the most difficult stretch of his professional career, statistically, by finishing with a career-low 20 goals and 52 points — although he missed the final eight games with an injury. It didn't make any sense.

Whether it was lack of puck luck or something he wasn't doing, Toews made it a priority to closely watch his shifts from last season to help change his fortunes this season. He started focusing more on his game positionally and trying to make skilled plays with the puck rather than being quick to give it up when he maybe thought guys were on top of him. And it paid off.

In Year 12 of his NHL career, Toews set a career high in goals (35), assists (46) and points (81) and appeared in all 82 games for the first time since the 2008-09 campaign. 

"It's progress," Toews said when asked to assess his season individually. "I like just where my offensive game is going. I feel like I learned a lot about my own preparation whether it's on the ice or off the ice. The game's changing, it's so skilled, it's so fast nowadays. You can't be satisfied with things that you do in the past. You have got to keep adapting, keep growing, keep finding ways to get better. And I feel like I'm doing that and excited to see where my game can continue to go in the next couple years."

Perhaps the most impressive part of his resurgence is that it came at the age of 30, which can be a scary number for athletes because it indicates they’ve approached the back half of their careers. But Toews, who turned 31 on Monday, seemingly got faster and stronger and he was heavily relied upon.

During the 2018-19 season, the Blackhawks captain had the most offensive zone starts of his career. He also had his most defensive starts, proving he was leaned on in all three zones. But the offensive production coming along really takes a weight off his shoulders going into the offseason because there were times in previous years where the doubt got to him.

"It was fun to go out there and score and just have that confident feeling that you can go out there and create regardless of who you're playing with on any given night,” Toews said. “It’s a feeling I didn't really have the last couple years and people start talking and doubting what you're able to do so it's sometimes hard to not let that creep into your own mind and into your own game. I feel like I took a good step forward in that sense this year."

But there’s no satisfaction here. Elite players like Toews are constantly striving to get better. Is there room for improvement?

“Oh, absolutely,” he said.

Which areas?

A smiling Toews responded: "All areas."

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Blackhawks 2018-19 season grades: Forwards

Blackhawks 2018-19 season grades: Forwards

At the All-Star break when we revealed our midseason grades, the Blackhawks were 29th in the entire NHL with a points percentage of .441. But that's right around the time where they started to turn around their season.

From Jan. 20 and on, the Blackhawks finished fifth in points percentage (.652). Only the Tampa Bay Lightning (.788), St. Louis Blues (.743), Boston Bruins (.727) and Carolina Hurricanes (.714) had a higher clip, all of whom are in the playoffs. The Blackhawks were in that position because their star players strapped the team on their back.

Alex DeBrincat scored a career-high 41 goals, Patrick Kane finished third in the NHL's scoring race with 110 points and Jonathan Toews set a career high in all three scoring categories: goals (35), assists (46) and points (81). They became the first trio in Blackhawks history to score at least 35 goals in the same season since 1987-88 when Steve Larmer (41), Denis Savard (44) and Rick Vaive (43) did so.

While the depth scoring from their forward group did get a little better in the second half thanks to the additions of Drake Caggiula, Brendan Perlini and Dylan Strome that helped balance out the lines, they didn't get enough of it throughout the season and it was one of the reasons the Blackhawks' top players ran out of gas down the stretch. That needs to change next season and it likely will.

The Blackhawks are expected to have north of $15 million in cap space to spend in free agency and could draft an immediate impact-type player at No. 3 overall in the 2019 NHL Draft after the ping pong balls bounced in their favor. That could be a game-changer.

The Blackhawks know what they have in DeBrincat, Kane, Strome and Toews. Even Brandon Saad, who turned in a 23-goal campaign. Now it's about building around that core group up front so the minutes can be more evenly distributed. If that happens next season, this grade will look different a year from now.

Grade: C+

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Why this offseason could (and should) be different for Blackhawks

Why this offseason could (and should) be different for Blackhawks

The belief around the NHL last offseason was that the Blackhawks were going to be aggressive via free agency. They were coming off a season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 campaign and had some cash to spend.

But it was quite the opposite. 

After John Tavares and James van Riemsdyk inked long-term deals with their respective new clubs, the ripple effects turned out to be over-payment across the board on a free-agent class that wasn't very deep. So the Blackhawks settled on a one-year deal for Chris Kunitz up front and two-year contract for Brandon Manning on defense.

This summer could be different. And it should be.

For one, the Blackhawks aren't handcuffed by a Marian Hossa contract that was moved on July 12 — nearly two weeks after free agency opened up. That didn't help their cause and didn't allow them to have financial flexibility when it really mattered.

"It was becoming challenging to try to operate with that contract here," Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said at the time. "It necessitated us trying to make the move we made." 

The Blackhawks are in a much better position this time around. They're projected to have north of $15 million in cap space and plan to take advantage of it.

"I would expect us to be more active in the summer free agent market than we have in years past," Bowman said on Sunday during exit interviews. "First of all, we have the cap flexibility to do that. We haven't been in this position before. This is probably the first time ever we've had this much money to spend. Doesn't mean we're going to spend all of it on July 1. We have to sort of look over the next horizon of years and plan for that but we weren't in this position a year ago or two years ago. We were shopping in a different marketplace. We have the capability to look at that and we're going to look at trades as well.

"Sometimes that's another way. Depends on what players you're looking for, if they're available in the summer, sometimes they are and sometimes you have to do it through trades. There will be some moving parts but I wouldn't expect sweeping changes. I think we've got a lot of good things here and we showed that our last 50 games we played some really good hockey. We're trying to build on that, not really change it dramatically."

Acquiring Brendan Perlini and Dylan Strome from Arizona and Drake Caggiula from Edmonton in the middle of the season put the Blackhawks in a better position going into this summer than originally expected. They found a potential future second-line center (Strome) they thought they had in Nick Schmaltz, replenished a top-nine winger (Perlini) they lost in Vinnie Hinostroza and added a skilled, aggressive forechecker (Caggiula) that can play anywhere in the lineup and checks a lot of boxes the team doesn't have right now.

The Blackhawks are no longer in a spot where they're looking to subtract from the roster — only if it makes sense for the short term and long term, both financially and production wise on the ice. They want to start building around the current group, one that's led by 30-year-olds Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews who are coming off career years.

The time to capitalize is now.

"We're not going to bring the same group back," Bowman said. "That's clear. We don't do that really any year. There's changes to every team, even a team that ends up winning the Cup this year will have some different players. We're going to have some new players next year. What we're going to do is try to improve in the areas where our team needs some help and the way that looks isn't completely clear right now, but we have time over the next couple months to dive in and look at our team in greater detail and figure out how we're going to make that happen.

"There's obviously free agent signings, there's trades, there's growth from within. Those are the ways that your team improves from year to year and we're going to do that. So we're going to have some new players here next year for sure but we have a lot of players that are going to be back and I think a lot of the key guys who had good seasons they're coming back for sure, so we don't need across the board changes but we do need some new players."

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