The Chicago Blackhawks are led into battle by captain Jonathan Toews. It isn't worth debating the fact that Toews is among the top players at his position. His strength on both ends of the ice makes him a perennial All-Star.
However, is it unfair to openly wonder how long Toews can perform at an elite level?
Toews is entering the upcoming season, his sixth in the NHL, with a hefty resume for a player who could still have well over a decade of productive hockey in him. The 2011-12 season could well have been a watershed effort for Toews, as he was on his way to career highs in goals and points.
The concussion that grounded Toews for the season's final 22 games didn't just cast a pall on Chicago's fortunes. It also has to be taken into consideration in any discussion of the captain's longevity with the 'Hawks.
Toews played his last regular-season contest February 19 at the United Center, a 3-1 victory over St. Louis. He had snapped his longest scoring drought of the season on a first-period penalty shot in New York three days before. He also helped Chicago end its nine-game winless streak in that game.
Entering action February 19, Toews had 29 goals and 28 assists and seemed a lock to smash his career high of 34 goals set in 2008-09. If he has sufficiently recovered from the symptoms that kept him off the ice, we could see a great young player raise his game yet another notch.
That "if" looms incredibly large.
Toews has now suffered through at least two head injuries over the last three seasons.
Toews missed over two weeks back in 2010, after Willie Mitchell separated the captain from his senses. The effects from his most recent concussion, thought to be suffered in San Jose on February 10, had Toews on the pine for a six-week stretch.
The Blackhawks went 15-5-2 down the stretch without Toews. However, it would be foolhardy to think that Chicago will be better off without him if he misses significant time with another head injury.
The style of play that makes Toews such a valuable two-way player also opens him up to a lot of contact. It is now safe to say that he officially has a concussion history.
For a fanbase that has Toews penciled into the captaincy for the next dozen years, such a history is more than a bit unsettling. It's not a scenario anyone wants to contemplate, but any hard collision involving Toews will be followed by the crossing of fingers.
Toews appears to be all the way back from the concussion and will be a big part of any noise the 'Hawks make come spring. Head injuries hold few absolutes, however. Time will tell what the cumulative effect of multiple concussions will have on Toews' future.