A stronger, fresher and, if you can believe it, hungrier Jonathan Toews is entering his fifth NHL season with a healthy understanding that winning in this League actually isn't as easy as it may have once seemed.
Toews gained his newfound perspective in the months after completing one of the most topsy-turvy seasons of his hockey life, one in which his Chicago Blackhawks were left for dead only to rise to near historic heights before crashing in the most heart-wrenching way.
The difficulties of last season coupled with the emotional playoff series against Vancouver forced Toews to gain a stronger appreciation for what he and his teammates accomplished in winning the Stanley Cup two seasons ago.
"You definitely realize how tough it is to do what you did the year before, and maybe that was a blessing in disguise that we did win (in 2010)," Toews told NHL.com. "I don't think a lot of us realized how good we were and how unique our situation was (two seasons ago). Maybe if you do and you know all those things, and you're a guy that has been in the League for 15 years and has been that close a number of times, you're putting way more pressure on yourself not to screw that opportunity up. This past season we realized how difficult it actually is whereas in the moment of two seasons ago we were winning games, having fun and it seemed all so simple."
Simple it most definitely wasn't for Toews and the Blackhawks last season.
Chicago was inconsistent in the regular season, so much so that it left its playoff fate in the hands of the Minnesota Wild, who fortunately beat the Dallas Stars in the final game of the regular season to lift the Hawks into the Western Conference tournament as the No. 8 seed.
They quickly fell into a 0-3 hole, but dug out in dominant fashion to force a Game 7 in Vancouver. Toews scored a shorthanded goal with just 1:56 left in the third period to send the game into overtime, but the Canucks killed off an early penalty and minutes later Alex Burrows pounced on a turnover and eliminated the Blackhawks with a series-clinching slap shot over Corey Crawford's right shoulder.
Toews never lost faith that his team could win the series even in the face of so much adversity, even when they were down 0-3. But, the hurt of losing to the Canucks lingered as the long offseason dragged on.
"You get that feeling of winning one game, and who is to say you can't win 15 more. There was that feeling that anything can happen," Toews said. "It took us three losses to figure it out and it was too late, but there was still a belief during that run. We were down three games to two and there was the belief that we could still find our way out of that."
When that belief died and the Canucks celebrated, what did he think then?
"I hate to lose more than anything," Toews replied.
This brings us to the here and now, a time Toews has been longing for since leaving Vancouver on April 26 without a next series to turn his focus toward.
He says he's fresher as a result of all the time off. He talks about being stronger and jokingly uses the phrase "chiseled."
Except it's no joke. Toews, as usual, appears to be in fantastic shape as the season draws near.
"I'm definitely ready to play the best hockey of my career and get our team to that next level again," Toews said.
He's never been more comfortable in his role as the Blackhawks' captain, saying everything he's learned in his first four seasons is finally adding up, turning him into a veteran leader even at the young age of 23.
"As a captain at 20 years old the last thing you want to come off as is a young brat who thinks he knows it all. I wanted to be sure of myself and confident in myself when I said and did things around the locker room," Toews said. "Now, I'm not saying you abuse your power but it definitely adds to your comfort level that you can say things and do things and guys will take it for what it's worth. They understand you're just trying to help the team and help them."
What makes his job even better and, yes, easier, is that Toews is leading most of the same teammates.
Even in their purge last summer, the Blackhawks promised that they would not lose their young core. It's very much in place; Toews is one of 12 players, including eight that played for Chicago's Cup-winning team, signed through at least 2013-14.
"It's great to know that guys like Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford, Patrick Kane -- guys that are great hockey players but also close friends that you've already formed very tight bonds with are going to be there for a long time," Toews said. "There are going to be new faces every year because that's just the reality of the business, but you know the guys coming in know what they're getting into and they're coming ready to win."
They better be, because while he might have a fonder appreciation for how difficult it is to win in this League, Toews isn't built to accept anything but success.
"I'm spoiled in a way because I've been part of a team that has made the playoffs three years in a row when many great players can't say the same thing," Toews said. "But, after winning a Stanley Cup you expect that. Anything less is disappointing."