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CHICAGO — Oh how the times have changed.
You’ll recall it wasn’t too long ago that the Winnipeg Jets looked up to the Chicago Blackhawks — both in the actual Central Division standings on a regular basis, and also in how they wanted to build their team. Three Stanley Cups in relatively short order will do that.
And now? Well, just listen to what Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews had to say Monday before his team welcomed the Jets to the United Center.
“For us, I think at this point, the Jets have become that measuring stick in our division with the way they play and what they did in the playoffs last year,” Toews said.
“They’ve got a lot of young talent, some leadership, they’re a pretty complete team when you look at their lineup. It’s never an easy game against them,” Toews said.
“Things can flip pretty quickly in our division. Things are so close nowadays, it’s a fine line. A few years ago, we were at the top of our division. Last couple years, we’re just fighting to get off the bottom.”
Through no fault of Toews, mind you. It was perhaps fitting that the Winnipeg-born centre picked Monday night to set a new career high in points against his hometown club. Toews beat Connor Hellebuyck just 4:25 into the game for his 34th goal and 77th point of the season. Although he scored 34 goals back in 2008-09, the most points he ever had previously was 76 in 2010-11.
The fact he’s putting up his best offensive numbers at the age of 30 is impressive. Of course, Toews has never been about personal achievements, and his solid season has somewhat gone to waste as the Blackhawks are set to miss the playoffs for a second straight year.
“It’s nice to produce day in, day out. I think that’s always the focus. Just trying to get back to my game, create offence but also play the right way. There’s always room for improvement in any part of your game. But it’s definitely nice to be able to contribute offensively and just feel like you’re going into a game and good things are going to happen. You can keep kind of repeating that same feeling every night,” Toews said.
So what has gone wrong? After all, Patrick Kane is also on the verge of setting a career high in points, and Alex DeBrincat had scored 41 times entering play Monday. Shouldn’t a squad with that kind of firepower be making post-season plans?
“You’d think that if you have guys having seasons like that it would make the difference, but at the end of the day, obviously hockey is a very team-oriented game, more so than other sports maybe. You can have a superstar on your team and you still need a lot of different pieces to go out there and make your team successful. So in that sense, it doesn’t matter too much,” Toews said.
Keeping pucks out of the net has been the biggest problem for the Hawks this season, and no doubt an issue management will need to address going forward.
It’s been a strange season for Toews and his veteran teammates, who saw legendary coach Joel Quenneville fired after a horrible start to their season, replaced by 33-year-old Jeremy Colliton.
Having a coach barely older than many players on the team clearly took some adjustment. But Colliton has brought some progress, albeit not quick enough to completely dig the team out of the early hole the players put themselves in.
“I think right from the start, you could see he was a pretty intelligent person. I think he knows how to relate to young guys in the room. He came in, gave us a system. Obviously it can take a little while to adjust, but I think as time went on, we all adapted and adjusted appropriately,” Toews said.
“I think, now, you see him getting more and more comfortable coming in between periods, making in-game changes and assessments as far as what’s going on with the other team, where we’re at in a game, how we’re playing, all that sort of thing. He’s one of those guys I think you’re going to see get better and better as a coach as time goes on.”
The small age gap still takes some getting used to, although Toews believes the future is bright. At least things look a lot better than those dark days of November, when seemingly nothing could go right.
“I think he’s very receptive to anything the captains and the leadership group have to say. He tries his best to be respectful if some of these guys have played a lot of games, but we know it’s quite clear he’s the coach and he makes the tough decisions. It’s not always gonna be a popular, but I think there’s a great line of communication between the players and the coach,” Toews said.
“I don’t know if it was shocking as much as we were just curious to see how things would play out. It’s not easy for a guy to step into a position like that. You’ve got to give him a lot of credit for what he’s been able to do for our team this year.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.