There is a phrase that Jonathan Toews
really is getting sick of hearing these days.
People are using it to describe a decidedly mediocre start for Toews and his Chicago Blackhawks
-- who were 8-8-1 following a weekend split of games against the Thrashers and Oilers.
The phrase: "It could be worse."
Pardon the Hawks' 22-year old captain for asking, but, really? How so?
"Personally, I'm not happy," Toews told NHL.com. "I'm pretty sure that everyone (in here) feels the same way. Maybe that's our problem. People keep saying, 'It could be worse.' Well, I think this is, in our minds, as bad as it can get. We don't want to go down from here. We want to go up. We feel like that's the only way we can go."
Toews made sure the Hawks came home from Atlanta on an up note. He scored twice and set up two more goals in regulation, then scored in the shootout as Chicago escaped with a 5-4 victory, making the flight home for Sunday's game against Edmonton a lot more pleasant. The momentum didin't carry over as the Hawks blew a 1-0 lead in a 27-second span in the third period, falling to the Oilers, 2-1.
The win came after coach Joel Quenneville
cut short Saturday's morning skate due to his displeasure with his players' effort.
Toews, who didn't earn his nickname of "Captain Serious" for nothing, said he thought a response was needed.
"That motivation should be coming within our own locker room … we're adults and we're mature hockey players and when it's time to light that fire, you know where," he said following the game. "It was a wake-up call."
Despite the up-and-down start, things could be worse for the Hawks, who remain solidly among the Western Conference's top eight -- but they could also be a lot better. Several of their seven losses were decided late in close games, but two of them came against Edmonton and New Jersey -- two of the League's worst teams. Both of those losses also happened in Chicago, with the Hawks looking a little lethargic at the start of both.
It wasn't the kind of hockey that led Chicago to its first Stanley Cup in 49 years last spring, and it certainly wasn't what they now call "Blackhawks Hockey" -- predicated on dominant puck possession and not giving up a lot of shots.
How do they get back to playing that kind of hockey?
Toews has a couple of ideas.
"Maybe we just need to up our standard as a team, expect more and demand more from ourselves," said Toews, who now has 5 goals and 14 points in 16 games. "It just seems like these mediocre efforts, especially at home, are acceptable -- and that's definitely not the case. We just need to have more fun, play a little looser and with a little more energy."
It starts with the captain. If there is anyone who is feeling the pressure of being a nightly target, it's probably Toews. With all he's accomplished in a short amount of time in the League, he's raised the bar pretty high for himself. The only way to alleviate that kind of pressure is to not lump it on in such large amounts.
"It almost feels like we go into games thinking like we have to carry the world on our back and scale a mountain by ourselves, and that's not the case at all," Toews said before the Hawks left for Atlanta. "We just need to simplify things and look at it as an easier job than it has been."
Quenneville isn't worried about Toews. While he knows things could be better, the fact that Toews is healthy means things could be a whole lot worse.
"He's been through a lot in a short amount of time -- be it as a player or as a captain," Quenneville said. "He's been exposed to playing deep in the playoffs and playing in the Olympics. Those are the big stages and he's handled all types of situations very well. He cares and wants to be the best he can be, and he wants us to be the best we can be. I think we'll be all right and he'll be fine."
Toews' teammates say they need to make their captain's job easier by sharing the pressure with him. Last season, Toews was helped in leadership by the presence of fourth-line center John Madden
and forward Andrew Ladd
, both of whom had won Stanley Cups before coming to Chicago. But with both departing in the offseason, it's time for others to fill those roles.
"Personally, I'm not happy. I'm pretty sure that everyone (in here) feels the same way. Maybe that's our problem. People keep saying, 'It could be worse.' Well, I think this is, in our minds, as bad as it can get. We don't want to go down from here. We want to go up. We feel like that's the only way we can go." -- Jonathan Toews
"I think he's taking a lot of it on himself," forward Troy Brouwer
said of Toews. "He tries to get guys going and get himself going to have a good start to the season, but you know -- it's not just his responsibility."
Veteran defenseman Brian Campbell
agrees and plans to pitch in as a leader now that he's back from a knee injury that kept him out for about a month.
"There are enough guys in the locker room who've been around," said Campbell, whose puck-moving ability is helping the Hawks to get back to the puck-possession game that carried them to the Cup. "Guys who've been around need to step up, so it's not (Toews) by himself. I know he puts a lot of pressure on himself and he's our leader, but it's definitely been talked about that we need to be of support and help him a lot."
The people Campbell is referring to make up what Hawks management identifies as the "core group" that survived the massive off-season overhaul -- players like Campbell, Patrick Kane
, Duncan Keith
and Brent Seabrook
, among others. Thus far, the core group's performance has been a little bumpy, just like the team overall. The way Brouwer sees it, that's no coincidence.
"Guys need to start taking it upon themselves to be up for games and not just put it on the shoulders of the captain," he said. "This is how it goes in a salary-cap world. Teams and locker rooms are going to change. We're in a little bit of a lull, but last year at the beginning of the season we weren't the greatest team, either. We just found a way to win and found ourselves as a hockey team. It'll come. It's taking a little bit longer than we'd hoped, but it's going to come."
It should help to get star forward Marian Hossa
and two-way center Dave Bolland
back from upper-body injuries in the near future. Bolland was off to a slow start, but is good at both ends of the ice. Hossa was dominating offensively before getting hurt. Once they return, it should be a little easier for the Hawks to loosen their collars -- even "Captain Serious" himself.