DENVER — Jonathan Toews lay contorted in the middle of the Chicago Blackhawks' dressing room Tuesday morning, doing yoga-like stretches to loosen up his lower back. At one point, he employed the use of a pulsating, lower-lumbar roller, using it as a fulcrum to stretch the muscles out even more.
The Blackhawks' decorated captain is still a young man, at 28, but, well, hockey is not easy on the body. Toews missed nine games in late November and early December with a back injury but told reporters Tuesday the back is "real good, actually." A bad back would be a convenient, and likely a legitimate, excuse for Toews' offensive statistical output being the lowest of his 10-year career. But the three-time Stanley Cup champion refuses to go there, which is exactly what you'd expect from probably still the best leader in hockey.
"Just gotta keep workin'," said Toews, who has seven goals and 22 points in 38 games, well down from his goal-scoring average of 28 the last three seasons. "It seems like every couple weeks, I'm sitting here answering questions about how my numbers aren't there. It's been frustrating, so I'm just trying not to lose that faith and that confidence."
Toews is an interesting guy. He's your typical hockey player in one sense ("No I in team", "Gotta go to the net, keep your shifts short, eh?"), with a couple of missing teeth and some battle scars on his face. He's something of a displaced flower child from the '60s in another. He's all hockey, through and through, but he has a strong interest in Buddhism. Here is a quote he gave to life coach and Onnit CEO Aubrey Marcus on a podcast last year:
When I think back to being a kid, being a shy introvert, hockey was my escape in a lot of ways. It was where I was strongest. It gave me a lot of self confidence and self worth, but maybe in some ways on an unhealthy level. You can see it in other athletes and other people who are successful; their insecurities are what drive them. I’ve kind of learned to deal with that and learned that there’s more to life than hockey. You are able to step outside of that, that that is not what should drive you. You should just learn to be happy and excited about what you do, and it’s a way to test out what you have every single day. There are still situations where that ego maybe gets in the way.
It was easy to say that before this, his worst statistical season so far. Life just seemed to come so easily to the Winnipeg, Manitoba, native, with the three Stanley Cups and multiple gold medals with Canada and a $10.5 million annual salary. It's another to keep saying things along that line in the here and now, with questions starting to swirl as to whether Toews' time of dominance has already passed him by in an NHL where "peach fuzz" could be the nickname for seemingly half the players in the league. At 28, Toews is now older than the average NHL player's age. According to NHLnumbers.com, 27 of the league's 30 teams have average player ages under 28.
Toews isn't the only highly paid star who is finding it harder to score in today's game. Los Angeles Kings captain Anze Kopitar, whose salary cap hit through the 2023-24 season is $10 million, had four goals in his first 38 games. The Anaheim Ducks' Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, with a combined salary cap hit of $16.875 million this season, had a combined 14 goals in their first 87 games. San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton had three goals in his first 44 games, all empty-netters.
Players such as Toews and Thornton are "puck-luggers" in the offensive zone. They made their bones driving hard to the net while fending off defenders with the puck. Now? There is very little extended puck possession in the offensive zone. The game is all give-and-go, quick-shot, hope-for-a-deflection pinball now. It's just harder for guys like Toews to score in this kind of game, but if anyone can adapt, it's him.
Blackhawks senior adviser and the NHL's all-time wins leader as a coach, Scotty Bowman, believes goal-scoring is an even more specialized part of the game for a certain type of player than it once was.
"I think it's a trend, where guys like (him) have played lots of hockey the last few years and have a lot of other responsibilities," Bowman said.
Bowman's son, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman, was asked Tuesday if he's worried about Toews' numbers.
"No, not worried," he said. "If we were losing regularly, I might say different. But he's still doing lots of things to help us win games. He cares more than ever about only one thing: winning."
Indeed, Chicago entered Wednesday tied with Minnesota for most points (61) in the Western Conference, though the Wild had four games in hand. And while the statistics might not show it, Toews looked great in his team's 6-4 win over the Colorado Avalanche Tuesday night. Despite being bumped down to a line with youngsters Ryan Hartman and Richard Panik, after playing most of the season with Marian Hossa by his side, Toews had an assist and could have had a couple more if not for Avs goalie Semyon Varlamov.
Asked before the game how he felt being separated from Hossa, a likely future Hall of Famer, Toews was diplomatic.
"You gotta get the message. I think everyone can compete harder, at least a little bit harder than we have the last few games," Toews said. "Sometimes, you go through little spurts where you're not playing with the most energy and firing on all cylinders. You've just got to find ways to play smart and still create but also limit the chances against you give up. It's something we'll continue to learn upon and continue to grow moving forward."
Some pundits, including Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh, believe Toews needs another quality linemate to make things better, for himself and the team. While teammate Patrick Kane is doing just fine, on a line with Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov, Toews is having to do too much by himself with unproven wingers, Haugh said.
Toews won't go there for an excuse, either.
"A lot of these young guys, they've been getting better, every single day," Toews said. "I think they're assuming more and more responsibility, on the bench, in the locker room and on the ice. Guys are getting more comfortable, regardless of what role they're playing. I think it's a long season, where there are moment when things maybe don't go so well, and you've got to learn from them and look at the big picture. We can't be too dissatisfied where we're at in the standings, especially with a lot of new faces in the dressing room, and we're going to be optimistic moving forward."
Hossa, one of only a handful of NHL players with 500 career goals and 600 assists, believes Toews is due for a big second half.
"Nobody here worries about 'Tazer,'" he said. "He's playing very good hockey still, even if the (statistics) might not say it. He is great on faceoffs (57.5 percent), penalty kill, everything. He's the least of any worries on this team."
Toews has earned the benefit from any doubters, heading into the final few months of the regular season. He may be getting older and dealing with all that comes with the aging body, but the passion and desire for more success, on top of an already-accumulated embarrassment of riches, still seem to be burning brightly.
"He's the one guy you don't worry about in here," Hossa said.
Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.