The Truth About Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and the Chicago Blackhawks roster-makeup

Over the course of this season, whenever the Chicago Blackhawks have stumbled, I have seen many Blackhawks fans blame Patrick Kane, some even floating the idea that maybe the team needs to move on without him in the future. Never was this sentiment more evident among Blackhawks fans than when their team fell behind three games to one against the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Semi-finals. Blame turned to adulation, however, when the Blackhawks came back to beat the Red Wings in seven games, and then took out the Los Angeles Kings in five in the Conference Fninals on the back of Kane’s overtime-winning hat trick goal in the final game.

But now that the Blackhawks have fallen behind to the Boston Bruins after three games of the Stanley Cup Final, criticism is once again being aimed at Patrick Kane, and this time Jonathan “one-goal-in-twenty-games” Toews is drawing a fair share of the fans’ ire too. So this is a long comment I started writing to one of the Chicago Blackhawks bloggers who has been echoing these same sentiments of many Blackhawks fans, but instead I’ve decided to post it here on Shark Circle.

Here’s my opinion on the play of Kane of Toews and the criticism being aimed at them. First off, I should mention that I think Toews is injured and have been saying so since at least the second round, but what I will say about him even when healthy is that ever since he won the Smythe (mostly for defense and playing top line center… Byfuglien was the real driving force on offense), there’s basically been this acceptance without even thinking that he is a superstar offensive player. But this is not Evgeni Malkin. He’s never had 100 points. He’s never even had 80 points!

Maybe in 2008, for example, with the way the league was going, Toews was on track to become a superstar offensive player because of his speed and skill off the rush. His lack of elite size didn’t matter so much then. Teams were still playing some end-to-end hockey, and defenses were still allowing it. Toews’ ability to go end-to-end, as he did in scoring multiple goal of the year candidate goals, actually meant something.

Now it’s much harder to play like that, and produce regular goals that way. Teams keep everyone behind the puck on defense, they backcheck like mad, and they don’t allow you to skate it end-to-end. Finesse skill, the type of skillset Toews (and Kane for that matter) has to a large degree, is not quite as dominant anymore by itself, not now that more of the game is played in the dump-and-chase style, where your ability to win board battles and grind it out mean just as much as your finesse skill level, if not more.

And that’s where people are forgetting that Toews is not elite. He’s listed as 6’2, but he’s not that tall in my opinion. I’m pretty positive. 6’1 at most, maybe even only 6’0. So I repeat, this is not Evgeni Malkin. This is not Ryan Getzlaf. This is not Anze Kopitar. This is more Patrice Bergeron, with a bit more dynamic finesse skill and maybe a better shot, although Bergeron is better at some things than Toews as well.

I mean let’s remember, back in 2008, Mike Richards was also thought of as an emerging star, while his teammate Jeff Carter was considered the lesser of the two. Now Mike Richards just got dominated by Joe Thornton when the Kings played the Sharks because Thornton’s size mattered much more than Mike Richards’ vision and hockey sense and skill. I’m not sure that it plays out that decisively if it’s 2008 style hockey.

Granted, Mike Richards seems to be to have gotten slower from 2008. With him it’s more than the just the game changing away from what favors his skill set; it’s also that his skill set itself has declined since then, at least that’s I believe, what with there being rumors of numerous shoulder surgeries since then, not to mention the rumors of drinking in Philadelphia which could potentially mean lack of work ethic off the ice in terms of keeping in top shape, which could have hurt his speed. To be clear, however, all of this is a just my theory/opinion.

Toews, though, when healthy, is still fast, still as talented as he was in 2008, and that’s why he’s still much better than Mike Richards. But he’s not an offensive superstar like people think. And let’s remember Mike Richards’ lesser half, Jeff Carter, is now miles better than Richards and it’s obvious. Having that size and superior physical skill makes a big difference, bigger than it did in 2008. Although, again, it’s a case where I think Carter has actually improved since then physically, gotten stronger and refined his two-way game to elite levels, while with Richards it’s been the opposite (in my opinion).

As for Patrick Kane, I said he’s also a finesse player lacking elite size, same as Toews, except in my opinion he’s just so skilled in finesse terms, even faster than Toews, easily, and more shifty, that he’s really an exception to the “size” issue. He’s so skilled that he is comparable to Malkin, even without the size. He can’t finish for shit, which is actually a big issue because that’s where production comes from, the puck actually going in the net, not just possession, but he’s still a possession machine, a scoring chance machine, and an automatic clean entry into the offensive zone. He’s not a perfect player (few are) because he can’t shoot and he’s not very gritty, but he’s so crazy talented that he’s still a huge asset on any team, and not the problem with the Blackhawks at all. He’s great, but again, same as Toews, he’s never scored 100 points, or scored 40 goals. That hat trick against the Kings was an outlier. He’s not a goal scorer. He is the best rush player in the NHL, and one of the best playmakers and scoring chance creators in the NHL. Despite his lack of size, he is a cycle machine because of how he can accelerate and control the puck with his hands. He is this generation’s Pavel Datsyuk, albeit without a shot. But even still, you don’t get better by trading him no matter what his off ice issues are.

So that’s what I think. Yes, Toews and Kane lack elite size. People also may overrate Toews offensively if they consider him in the same league as Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, or even, say, Claude Giroux, and I’m not sure people realize just how bad Patrick Kane’s finishing ability is and just how much it detracts from his impact on games. However, despite these qualms, both are excellent, irreplaceable players, and neither are the problem with the Blackhawks; in fact they’re two of the best factors in why the Blackhawks are as good as they are.

But no, they’re not 100 point players, and yes they are both small. But small isn’t always bad. It’s just that you need a balanced roster. Toews and Kane aren’t the problem. The problem is that the Blackhawks are not a completely built team; they are missing the David Backes and Milan Lucic or Anze Kopitar guys to go with Toews and Kane. Michal Handzus is their second line center… that’s ridiculous for a team with Cup aspirations, and that’s not Toews or Kane’s fault, it’s the GM’s. And who knows, maybe Toews needs to turn into Chicago’s second-line center, while they find someone just as good or better to be the new #1 center. Obviously that would make Toews an amazingly good second-line center, but just look at the Bruins. David Krejci has been the best NHL forward all postseason, basically, and he’s their second-line center. Or is it Bergeron? Either way, their second line center is playing better than Toews at the moment, and really has been since round one.

The other area where Toews and Kane can’t be blamed is the power-play. Everyone in San Jose was talking about Logan Couture’s emergence this postseason into a force, with all the goals he scored, but every single one of them came on the power-play. If the Sharks power-play sucked as much as Chicago’s, Couture’s postseason might have looked just as bad as Toews’. Im not saying Toews and Kane still shouldn’t be able to put up even strength points, just that all top players, even Crosby or Malkin, rely pretty significantly on the power-play to produce points. So if you’re playing on a team with an inept power-play, run by a coach with a history of being poor at coaching power-plays, that’s going to make you look worse than you really are, too, because now you’re not going to collect any points on the power-play or get any confidence from it.

So when you combine the fact that Handzus is the second-line center, and Kane as his winger has had to carry him most of the postseason instead of being helped by his second-line center, with the fact that the powerplay is terribly coached and never gets these guys any points, it’s no wonder they are going to look much worse than they really are.

And the last thing I’ll say quickly just to avoid any confusion in advance, when I talk about size, someone might mentioned how Krejci and Bergeron aren’t really that big, either, and it’s no problem for them, or what about Marchand especially? And that’s because “size” is the wrong word for what I’m talking about. What it’s really all about is the ability to play dump and chase hockey effectively, which means the ability to cycle the puck well and protect it along the boards. Usually this ability comes with size, strength, and reach, and then of course speed and skill along with that, but it doesn’t always have to come with “size” as we mostly tend to think of it in terms of height and weight. Some players are short but very strong and fantastic on their skates and good at making quick turns along the boards and keeping the puck, like Marchand, or Vladimir Sobotka on the St. Louis Blues is another good example. And Krejci and Bergeron are both pretty good along the boards, although not elite. And that’s why I said Kane’s skill is so high that he’s one of those rare guys who doesn’t even need size to dominate the cycle. Like Marchand, just with tons more skill than even the very talented Marchand, but a little less grit, Kane is so fast and slick on his skates, with very underrated strength in his legs, plus all his skill, that he can dominate the boards. And Toews of course is very good there too. Just not elite. And that’s what I meant when I said he’s not Kopitar or Backes along the boards, or Malkin in terms of the complete package of size and skill in all areas offensively.

But people might get confused by all this and say if Toews is very good along the boards, even if he’s not as good as Kopitar, he’s still as good as Bergeron, no? And Krejci, no? The answer to that is, first, there are always many things at play, as I’ve already touched on with Handzus being the second-line center, and the power-play being inept (but Boston’s is too usually), but also, Krejci has two big-name, all-star type power forwards on his wings, Horton and Lucic, making a complete line. Toews doesn’t, necessarily. And Bergeron, it’s not so much his wingers being great, although they are, as it is that he’s a real, elite second-line center, and Handzus is neither, which is why he and his line, also containing two legitimate second line wingers, excels while Kane’s line, which doesn’t contain three legitimate top-six forwards (and the lack of a true second line center being a huge whole at the most important position on the line), doesn’t so much.

And Jagr on the Bruins second line is huge and very good down low on the cycle, as is Marchand despite his size, and it makes a good line. And even where the Bruins forwards aren’t all Milan Lucic clones, even where they’re as small as the Blackhawks (which mostly they’re not but, but in rare instances), the Bruins can still make up for that because they’re so big on defense. The Blackhawks are small everywhere, on defense as well, and so Toews, Kane, Sharp and the like just don’t have nearly the same amount of size and roster-balance to work off of as say Patrice Bergeron and Rich Peverely and Tyler Seguin do on the Boston Bruins. And if the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that despite all the criticism has done very well for themselves this year, currently sitting in the Stanley Cup Finals and still with a chance to win it, have a weakness or an issue with their roster, that would be it, not the presence of Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane.

Written by Shark Circle. By the way I had to publish this quick before running off to do some other things, plus I typed this initially to be very casual just for a twitlonger comment, so if there are any typos, I apologize.