Toews, Chicago’s captain, is the conduit through which the Blackhawks identity flows from the first day of informal skates until the final day of the season.
John Torchetti, an assistant coach for the Blackhawks from 2007-10, saw what Toews meant to the Blackhawks more than a decade ago when he was still growing into a leadership role.
“It’s a loss because of the tone he sets in training camp,” Torchetti said of Toews. “In the weight room, he’s in there, and he works just as hard as the rookies, so they understand. He sets the tone and the pace. And also, just the pace of his practice and his execution in practice, wanting to come out and make every play, make every pass, do every drill hard and just lead. It’s a big example.”
The 32-year-old has been captain of the Blackhawks since 2008 and his impact has grown annually. Toews led the Blackhawks from struggling seasons to winning the Stanley Cup three times.
He was expected to be a big part of the rebuilding process the Blackhawks are undertaking this season as they transition to younger players in key positions.
Instead, Toews will not attend training camp because of a medical issue, and there’s no timetable for his return.
“This offseason, I’ve been experiencing symptoms that have left me feeling drained and lethargic,” Toews said in a statement Tuesday. “I am working with doctors, so I can better understand my condition.”
For the Blackhawks, already without Kirby Dach for 4-5 months following wrist surgery and restricted free agent Dylan Strome, who remains unsigned, it’s more than losing another center. It’s losing someone who helped re-establish a winning culture in Chicago and could pass those lessons along to a new generation.
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said they planned to lean heavily on Toews and forward Patrick Kane to set an example for future leaders, including Dach and defenseman Adam Boqvist.
“They could be a big help there, because they’ve lived that life not that long ago, where they’ve transitioned from being a hot-shot young player to being the guy who the other team is focused on, and it’s not easy,” Bowman said in October. “You get the other teams’ best players paying attention to you and harder matchups. So, I think they can explain to those young players that there are going to be some ups and downs and you have to try to work your way through it. I think one of the benefits is to be able to guide them along, show them how you dealt with it when you were getting more attention. What are some of the things you would focus on to maintain your confidence and not get too frustrated?”
Toews, the No. 3 pick in the 2006 NHL Draft, arrived in the NHL with the Blackhawks in the 2007-08 season. In the previous 10 seasons, Chicago had made the Stanley Cup Playoffs twice and had failed to advance past the first round each time.
They also missed the playoffs during his rookie season, but quickly evolved into a model franchise. During a seven-season stretch from 2008-15, the Blackhawks reached the Western Conference Final five times, winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015.
Toews fingerprints were all over the rise to prominence and remain on the franchise today. They are evident in little gestures of gratitude to teammates to club culture he passes along to prospects.
Jamal Mayers, who played for the Blackhawks from 2011-13, said he remembers Toews always having a sixth sense about what teammates needed.
“This is going back years when I was with him, but he had, even at a young age, when he was in his mid-20s, he had an uncanny ability to have the pulse of the whole room, in the sense that some guys needed a hug, some guys needed a kick in the butt,” said Mayers, who retired after the 2012-13 season. “He had a great understanding of where everyone was in order to get everyone on the same page. That’s probably the most impressive thing for me, seeing him as a younger player, being able to see that.”
It’s common to see Toews working on faceoff skills after practice with younger centers. With a 56.9 faceoff winning percentage for his career, Toews doesn’t need the extra work, but passing on tricks of the trade is part of his leadership DNA.
“He used a lot of skill and homework and video and watching different players to beat those players,” former Blackhawks forward Bryan Bickell said. “He’s a leader in the room. The way he works in the gym, the way he prepares, he gets his mind, body, everything ready for each game. That’s the player you build a franchise around and that’s what the Blackhawks did. Hopefully he can bounce back and get the season rolling.”
Toews scored 60 points (18 goals, 42 assists) in 70 games last season, second on the Blackhawks to forward Patrick Kane who scored 84 points (33 goals, 51 assists) in 70 games. He scored nine points (five goals, four assists) in nine postseason games, tied with Kane for the team lead.
When the Blackhawks open camp Jan. 3, they’ll look much different from the team that upset the Edmonton Oilers in four games in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers before losing to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the Western Conference First Round.
Goalie Corey Crawford, the linchpin to the two most recent championships, signed a two-year contract with the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 9 and forward Brandon Saad, who scored 21 goals last season and helped Chicago win the Cup in 2013 and 2015, was traded to the Colorado Avalanche for defenseman Nikita Zadorov on Oct. 10.
There are two healthy centers from last season, Ryan Carpenter and David Kampf, but the Blackhawks signed centers Mattias Janmark and Lucas Wallmark each to one-year contracts Oct. 12 and Carl Soderberg to a one-year contract Dec. 28. Each must adapt quickly to a new system and new teammates.
No single player will replace Toews, who played in all situations. He averaged 19:47 of ice time per game last season, sixth overall and second among forwards for the Blackhawks (Kane was first at 21:20).
This was already going to be a challenging season for the Blackhawks. The loss of Toews makes it that much more daunting.