There was a time a little more than a year ago when Chicago Blackhawks
coach Denis Savard
wasn't sure just how good 2006 first-round NHL Entry Draft choice Jonathan Toews
Now? Well, there's no doubt in Savard's mind.
"From a distance you could see the skill and poise, but you never really know for sure until you see the player on the ice in front of you, you know what I mean?" Savard said the other day, remembering the few moments he spent watching Toews help Canada win the gold medal at the World Junior Championship last winter. "You like what you see. Like when Jonathan Toews was put under pressure taking shootout chances one after another.
"I think what clinched it for me was that this kid never missed the net on the shootout opportunities. We don't even see that here at the NHL level."
The Blackhawks missed the playoffs last season for the fourth straight season and eighth time in the past nine seasons. But Savard, who played a pretty good leading role in Chicago for more than a decade, had a hunch that the 19-year-old Toews and 18-year-old Patrick Kane, the team's No. 1 draft choices the last two years, were about to put the Hawks on the road to the future.
In the first weeks of this season, Toews and Kane in tandem opened the eyes of the rest of the National Hockey League.
It was sort of like going from searching the Internet on dial-up to adding high-speed technology. The picture of the future was the same, but it was much clearer, much faster.
When Toews sustained a sprained knee on Dec. 26 at home against Nashville, the Hawks were in the midst of a four-game winning streak and had a 19-15-2 record. Chicago's record slipped to 4-9-3 in the 16 games Toews missed.
But disputing the old axiom in hockey that one young man can't make a difference in this team game, the Blackhawks went 4-1-1 in their first six games after Toews returned – scoring 21 times in those six contests. What Toews' skills do for the Hawks is help define the rest of the team, which gets a balanced attack up front when he's in the lineup, plus the defense has the confidence to step up into the play and make things happen offensively.
"This kid is 19 going on 30 in terms of maturity," St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray said before the Blackhawks and Blues faced one another Feb. 19. "Jonathan just oozes leadership."
Murray invited Toews to join Team Canada for the World Championships in Moscow last spring, and the kid did a man's-size job of helping Canada to a 9-0 record and a gold medal.
Even if his nickname among the veterans on that team was Waterboy.
"It seemed like every time I turned around, one of the veterans was saying, 'Hey, rookie, I need more water,' " Toews laughed. "It was OK, though. Just being there with guys like Shane Doan and Rick Nash and the rest of those NHLers was a great experience for me."
Oh, and he added: "It was even better when I didn't have an armful of water bottles and was able to get on the ice."
"He's so respectful of the game," Blues defenseman Barret Jackman, who also played on the World Championships team, said of Toews. "We gave him a hard time when he first joined our camp in Moscow, but he just fit in so seamlessly with the rest of the team.
"And how can you not like the way he plays? With great character and a vision on the ice and grit and determination we'd all love to have."
"Jonathan's presence on the ice is well beyond his years," said Blues center Jay McClement, who also was on that Team Canada unit last spring. "He's like a teenager when you talk to him at first, but soon you notice the maturity."
"He wants to be the best, that's obvious," said Blues defenseman Erik Johnson, who was No. 1 to Toews' No. 3 in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, and played against each other when Toews was at the University of North Dakota and Johnson was at the University of Minnesota, plus they faced off against one another in two World Junior Championships and in that World Championship in Moscow.
Toews was like a lost puppy when he was told by doctors that he would miss time with his knee injury, but the Hawks were even more lost without him.
When I was out, it seemed like an eternity. I was around the guys, but I didn't feel like a part of the team. I didn't like that feeling one bit. - Jonathan Toews
"When I was out, it seemed like an eternity. I was around the guys, but I didn't feel like a part of the team. I didn't like that feeling one bit," Toews said. "I hate losing. We all hate losing. I know we can be a winning team. Right now."
Toews is the ultimate young winner.
Despite missing two games at the start of the season and 16 games with the knee injury, he's second among all rookies with 17 goals is fourth with 37 points, and tied for first with four game-winning goals. He has seven multi-point games, including a pair of three-point outings.
Toews is too modest to talk about his importance in the future plans for the Blackhawks. All he knows about is the present – and the playoff race he hopes to keep Chicago in.
"Did we miss him?" Savard asked with a straight face. "It's clear that he makes us all better.
"Like all very special players do."
Linemate Patrick Sharp struggled at times without Toews on his line. He even had to move from left wing to center in Toews' absence. The results were mixed.
"He's such a big part of the lineup," Sharp said. "Everything just seems to fit when he's around."
Clearly, Toews – a young leader, a former Waterboy – makes the Chicago Blackhawks tick.
Around the Central Division – No one will be looking at Chris Chelios' birth certificate or the amount of minutes he plays in the next three weeks while the Detroit Red Wings try to overcome the loss of captain Nicklas Lidstrom with a right knee injury. With their top three defenders – Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski (groin) and Niklas Kronvall (shoulder) all on the sideline, it was the ageless Chelios, who turns 46 on Jan. 25, who sparked a 4-0 victory at Colorado on Feb. 18 with his savvy on defense, plus the first goal in a 4-0 victory that snapped the team's six-game winless skid (0-5-1) – the first time a Detroit team had lost six in a row in 17 years. Lidstrom had missed only 22 games in his 16 seasons in Detroit before he was heavily checked by Avs center Ian Laperriere six minutes into the game. He leads NHL defensemen in scoring with 57 points in 62 games, and leads all players with a plus-39 rating. But Chelios is ready to lead the way in Lidstrom's absence. Also, coach Mike Babcock got a chance to see highly-touted young defenseman Jonathan Ericsson under NHL pressure. The 6-foot-4, 206-pounder was the last player picked in the 2002 draft (ninth round, 291st overall). Babcock says the Swede is a diamond in the rough. ... Pavel Datsyuk assisted on both of Henrik Zetterberg's goals in the Red Wings' 4-0 win in Colorado, giving him assists on 19 goals by Zetterberg this season. Going into the weekend, that matched the second-highest assist total for a player on goals by a particular teammate with Dallas' Mike Ribeiro, who had assisted on 19 goals by Brenden Morrow. St. Louis' Paul Kariya leads the league in this category, with 21 assists on goals by Brad Boyes. ... What has happened to the Detroit-Colorado rivalry? The Wings have won 14 of the last 17 meetings with the Avs, and the last three have been shutouts by Detroit (Dominik Hasek on Jan. 8 and Feb. 1, Chris Osgood on Feb. 18). Colorado, in fact, has scored only two goals in four games against Detroit this season, all losses, and the most shots the Avalanche have had is 20. … Score late and make a difference. That's been the mantra for the Nashville Predators all season. When J.P. Dumont scored with just 1:55 left for a 5-4 victory over Edmonton on Feb. 19, it marked the 35th time this season the Preds have scored a goal in the final two minutes of a period – a stat that leads the NHL. It shouldn't have come as a shock that Dumont got the game-winner in that contest against the Oilers. His last four goals have been game-winners – four of a team-leading seven game-winning goals he has this season. ... Defenseman Shea Weber, he of the big shot and even bigger hits, showed signs of becoming a difference maker as a rookie in the second half of the 2005-06 season; he finished that campaign with an impressive 17 goals and 40 points, plus a team-high 165 hits. Though he has been injured much of this season, Weber had goals on back-to-back nights in wins against St. Louis and at Minnesota on Feb. 16-17. The goal against the Blues was his first career overtime goal. Then on Feb. 21, in a 3-2 shootout loss against Vancouver, he flashed his skills once again by firing 10 of his team's season-high 51 shots. The previous Preds record for shots in a game by a defenseman was eight, by Kimmo Timonen and Andy Delmore. ... Another player stepping up offensively of late is energy guy Scott Nichol. He had a goal and two assists against Edmonton, with the goal giving Nichol a career-high nine for the season. Pretty good considering the feisty forward came into this season with just 30 career goals in 301 NHL games. ... Defenseman Marek Zidlicky sent the Vancouver game into overtime with a late power-play goal to give him seven points in the last seven games. He now has four goals and 18 assists on the power play this season. Maybe Coach Barry Trotz should have considered Zidlicky in the shootout, where he once was a key contributor. This season, Nashville is 2-5 in shootouts. Worse yet, their shooters are just 4-for-19. ... The St. Louis Blues still have trouble scoring power-play goals in practice and they rank 29th with the man-advantage. But magic hit the Blues' power-play group on Feb. 17 and 19, when they scored three power-play goals in wins over Columbus and Chicago. The three extra-man scores against the Blue Jackets represented the first time St. Louis had three in one game since Feb. 20, 2007. Ironically, that also came against Columbus. Carrying this scenario one step further, the outburst against Chicago marked the Blues' first consecutive three power-play-goal games since Oct. 17-19, 2002. ... It's no coincidence that shifting Keith Tkachuk from center back to left wing came about that time. After getting just four shots in his final five games at center, Tkachuk had 13 shots in his first two games on the wing – and he also had two goals and two assists. ... Recently-appointed St. Louis captain Eric Brewer's four assists against Columbus was his first four-point game in nearly 575 games over his nine-year NHL career. ... The 5-1 win over Chicago Feb. 19 was the Blues' 18th at home this season, equaling the total St. Louis had all of last season. ... The word from Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson is that the only directive he has for this season is to make the playoffs. That means teams looking at his six potential unrestricted free agents – defensemen Adam Foote, Ron Hainsey, Dick Tarnstrom and Jan Hejda, and centers Sergei Fedorov and Michael Peca – had better come up with a deal that would blow him away, because he wants to keep the Jackets in contention for a playoff spot. Insiders say he is in the mix for a No. 1 center, and that Tampa Bay's Brad Richards is on his radar. ... Remember when the Jackets were 0-for-9 in their first three shootout losses? Well, things certainly have changed since coach Ken Hitchcock started using Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev in the shootouts. Nash raised his shootout record this season to 4-for-8, and Zherdev improved to 5-for-6 after both scored goals in a 3-2 shootout triumph over Ottawa on Feb. 21. ... Sergei Fedorov, just back from an injury, sent the game against the Senators into overtime with his ninth goal of the season and the 470th of his career. That puts Fedorov just three behind Alexander Mogilny, who holds the mark for most NHL goals by a Russian-born player. ... Who was that masked man in goal for the Chicago Blackhawks on Feb. 20 against Minnesota? It was Nikolai Khabibulin, who made 38 saves in the 3-0 victory, posting his 37th career shutout after sitting out three games with a sprained knee. It was the Hawks' first shutout this season and Khabibulin's second in three seasons in Chicago – the last one was in Los Angeles on March 6, 2007. Since he went through an 0-8-2 stretch from Dec. 30 through Feb. 2, Khabibulin has gone 3-0-1, allowing just five goals in that four-game stretch. ... Blackhawks rookie center Dave Bolland notched his first two-goal game in the NHL in that win over Minnesota. ... Signing defenseman Brent Seabrook to a new three-year, $10.3 million contract is the third long-term deal given by Chicago to core players in recent months, following new deals for forward Patrick Sharp and defenseman Brent Sopel. ... Chicago's Patrick Kane leads all rookies with 51 points this season. Kane is the ninth rookie in Blackhawks history to score at least 50 more points in a season and just the second to do so since 1990-91, when Eric Daze had 53 points in 1995-96 and finished second in the Calder Trophy voting to Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson. The Chicago record for points in a season by a rookie is 90, by Steve Larmer in 1982-83.
The week ahead – Earlier in the season, when St. Louis was putting up a pretty good record and the Blues thought they had a playoff spot, they had a lot of trouble against an Ilya Bryzgalov-less Phoenix team – losing to the Coyotes 3-2 in the season opener Oct. 4 and then being beaten 2-1 Oct. 30. This week, the Blues play the Coyotes twice – Feb. 24 at Phoenix and four nights later in St. Louis. And Bryzgalov is staring the Blues right in the face, with the final playoff spots in the Western Conference at stake every night. ... Columbus finishes its five-game trip in Montreal on Feb. 23 – and you have to know that Jackets goalie Pascal Leclaire, who grew up in Montreal rooting for the Canadiens, would love nothing more than to give the Jackets a 3-2 record on that trip with a win in La Belle province. ... Detroit hosts San Jose on Feb. 29 in a rematch of the second-round playoff series the Red Wings won in six games. Detroit dominated their first three meetings, winning 4-2, 5-1 and 6-3, with Henrik Zetterberg contributing four goals and three assists in the three games.