Jonathan Toews is a legitimately great hockey player. He’s a talented offensive weapon, a diligent defensive presence and the captain and first-line centre of the strongest team in the NHL over the last half-decade or so.
He’s also inconsistent, at least by certain definitions. He's currently in the middle of something of a cold streak, and that's happened repeatedly over the years.
Toews has just a single goal and two points over his past nine contests. That goal came against the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday, bringing an end to Toews’ third five-or-more-game goalless drought in 2015-16. This season isn’t the first time that Toews’ offence has been hit-and-miss. He’s had long runs in each of the last three seasons where scoring was decidedly difficult.
In 2012-13, that long stretch was in the postseason; he played his first playoff game on April 30, scored his first goal on May 25 and his second goal on June 13. Chicago beat the Wild in the first round and the Kings in the third round without the benefit of a Toews goal; it got by Detroit in a seven-game second-round series with just one marker.
In 2013-14, Toews scored 12 goals in his first 25 games, then just one in his next 14. After that streak was ended by a two-goal game against Nashville, he’d score just two goals in the 15 games after that. In 2014-15, he put up a similar pattern, scoring 11 goals in his first 26 games. He’d score just four goals in his next 27 contests, a run which included a five-game, six-game and 11-game goalless drought.
Some of the problem is how we define consistency. The term “streaky scorer” is often applied to people like Phil Kessel in a pejorative way, but the truth is that scoring is almost by definition streaky. Shooting percentage varies up and down, regardless of who a player is.
Consider our example of Toews in the 2012-13 playoffs. If we move away from goals or points and look at on-ice shot metrics, he looks much, much better. Chicago had a whopping 39-to-21 edge in shots over an average hour at five-on-five when Toews was on the ice during that playoff run. His line dominated territorially, but he and Brandon Saad, in particular, just couldn’t get their shots to go in.
Although Toews’ personal results were not good, his underlying numbers were exceptional. Which says more about his personal effort level?
We also, as a hockey community, have the bad habit of saying “consistent” when we mean “good” and “inconsistent” when we mean “bad.” Matt Fenwick of the blog The Battle of Alberta wrote on this back in 2008 and used the example of a golf game between himself and Tiger Woods:
[T]here are at least a thousand golfers in North America who can hit it as far as Tiger, and make 25-foot putts on occasion. There are also duffers who have played with him in a pro-am and beaten him on a particular hole. "The difference between Tiger Woods and Other Golfer is their consistency" would be an extremely stupid, nonsensical thing to say, and yet when the contrast is less extreme, people say this all the time … And if I play a round of golf with Tiger Woods, I might tie him on the first hole, but when he beats me by 12 or 15 on the round, it won't be because I lacked consistency.
Because Toews is such a great player, he doesn’t usually get blasted with the inconsistency charge that lesser players do, even on those occasions when it’s equally valid. A guy who scores 12 goals in 25 games and then five in 30 wouldn’t normally be considered consistent, and if we pretend his name is something like “Phil Kessel” instead of Toews, it isn’t hard to figure out what the storyline would be. If a player doesn’t have the reputation shield, these streaks tend to get a lot more attention.
Toews' struggles with what we call "consistency" don’t make him overrated. He’s a legitimately great player, one who at some points scores every other game and at others goes three playoff rounds with one goal. Shooting percentage and goal-scoring is unpredictable over short spans; that’s just the way hockey is.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.