It goes without saying that the Chicago Blackhawks are going to be affected tremendously by the loss of captain Jonathan Toews for the start of the 2021 season. Toews, now 32, is coming off back-to-back imposing offensive campaigns and is widely regarded as one of the premiere leaders in all of professional sports. He has been the face, backbone, and workhorse of the franchise since the day he was drafted in 2006.
For the first time in well over a decade, the Blackhawks are going to find out what life is like without Toews leading the charge into battle. Toews released a concerning statement back on December 29 detailing the symptoms of his illness, which will keep him out of the lineup indefinitely.
“This offseason, I’ve been experiencing symptoms that have left me feeling drained and lethargic,” Toews wrote. “…Until I can get my health back to a place where I feel I can perform at an elite level and help my team, I will not be joining the Blackhawks for training camp. I do not have a timetable for when I will rejoin the team. I am extremely disappointed, but it wouldn’t be fair to myself or my teammates to attempt to play in my current condition.”
Blackhawks Remain Confident
Without Toews, the Blackhawks have exceedingly low expectations and are looked at as a hopeless bottom-feeder in the NHL this year. At the moment, BetOnline has their over/under listed at 52.5 points for the season, which is tied with the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings for third-lowest out of 31 teams. Not exactly a sign of respect from Vegas.
But don’t tell the Blackhawks that. Despite hearing the noise and jabs from across the league, the players remain quite optimistic on the outlook of the season. Of course, common cliches get squeezed dry by every NHL club this time of year. It’s not like the Blackhawks (or any professional sports team, for that matter) would come out and publicly admit defeat before the year has even started. Ultimately, they have no choice but to be positive.
“In the room, we have a lot of good players,” forward Alex DeBrincat said. “If we battle every night, we’ll have a chance to win. That’s our mentality. Work hard, not listen to anyone on the outside.”
Dylan Strome, who reached an agreement with the Blackhawks on a two-year contract Sunday night, is also aware of the criticism heading into the season.
“I think a lot of people are doubting us this year,” said Strome. “So it would be nice to turn it around and kind of quiet some people up.”
A (Captain) Serious Loss
With Toews and Brent Seabrook absent in training camp, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith are left as the de facto co-captains of the Blackhawks. Both players have done it all throughout their respected NHL careers, from winning multiple Stanley Cups, to representing their native countries on numerous occasions at the Olympics. Who better to guide the Blackhawks through these tough times?
But even Kane spoke on Monday about how devastating Toews’ loss is for the Hawks. Not only are the Hawks without one of their top players, but it does not even feel like the same team without Toews around, according to Kane.
“He’s obviously in the back of our minds and we’re thinking about him,” Kane said. “It doesn’t really feel like a team without Jonny as your captain. We definitely miss him but he’s got to take care of this first.”
Toews’ presence is going to missed by the Blackhawks in all facets of the game. On the ice, the Hawks’ captain led the way on both the top powerplay and penalty kill units and has been a staple of the top line for over 10 years. Off the ice, his work ethic and determination to be great is unmatchable. In every sense of the matter, Toews has always been the heart and soul of this Blackhawks’ core.
“He’s a big part of this game, a big part of the organization,” Kane added. “He’s been our captain for a long time. He’s, no question, our biggest leader, so we’ll miss him for sure. That’s just the way it is, what are you going to do?
Who Will Step Up in Toews’ Absence?
The Blackhawks managed to work out a deal with Strome just in time for the first day of training camp, and the 23-year-old center is the probable candidate to fill in for Toews on the top line. Strome is coming off a down year in 2019-20 with just 38 points (12 goals, 26 assists) in 58 games, but he is now presented with a prime opportunity to be the forefront of the Hawks’ offense in 2021.
Carl Soderberg, who is not part of the training camp roster due to immigration issues, is also in contention to play on the first line this season. Although, the 35-year-old Swedish forward will face a considerable disadvantage by missing all of the team’s practice sessions before opening the year against the Tampa Bay Lightning in just over a week.
But Toews’ absence will not just be felt at the center position, it will be felt throughout the entire lineup. Strome and Soderberg are two key players expected to provide offensively in place of Toews, but the pressure also rests on the shoulders of wingers Alex DeBrincat and Dominik Kubalik. David Kampf and Lucas Wallmark will be expected to take on an increased role for the penalty kill and in the faceoff dot. Kane and Keith are needing to provide leadership more than ever in a crucial period of the rebuilding process. From top to bottom, the entire Blackhawks roster needs to step up without their captain.
“It’s a situation where someone else is going to get a chance to step up and play some big minutes and play a big role,” Kane said. “It’s a chance for us to come together as a team and take a step forward. Like I said, we’ll miss [Toews]. It’s going to be tough to do it without him, but that’s just the situation we’re in.