Rozner: Chicago Blackhawks' Toews searching for answers

What has happened to Jonathan Toews?

An NHL friend asked that question over the weekend as we pondered the Chicago Blackhawks' future.

His main point was that in previous years, Toews was a guy you could never take off the puck. He played so much bigger than he actually was, so hard on the puck and so difficult to play against.

Now, every time you look up, Toews is flat on his back or face down flailing away as the opposition takes possession of the puck.

It's just so very different and perplexing.

Toews has alternated over the past few summers between trying to get stronger and trying to get quicker, but neither program has worked.

So now what, stronger or quicker?

"More of the same," Toews said last week when the Hawks cleaned out their lockers. "I think there's ways (to do both). It's a work in progress."

If the first week of the postseason has displayed anything, it's that the NHL continues to get faster while the Hawks have looked slower, but physical play remains a crucial part of the game.

And anyone who says hits don't matter has obviously never been hit.

"I wouldn't say it's harder to keep up, but there's definitely weaknesses in your game that you have to work on and get better at," Toews admitted. "There's so many great young players that come in so physically prepared every year.

"It's up to you to acknowledge what you do well and build off that, but also assess some of the weaknesses that can develop with the game changing as much as it has."

Toews doesn't need anyone to defend what he has already accomplished in his career.

He is the captain of a three-time Stanley Cup champ.

He has at times been their best offensive and defensive forward, always looking to take care of his own zone first.

He won the Conn Smythe in 2010.

He has won gold with Canada at the Olympics twice, once named the tournament's best forward while playing with and against the world's best players.

He helped North Dakota reach the Frozen Four twice.

He won gold at the 2005 U-17 worlds, at the 2006 and 2007 world juniors and at the 2007 worlds.

He was named one of the 100 greatest NHL players ever, and he is headed for the Hall of Fame.

It's been a very busy last 14 years, and the man simply looks tired as he turns 30 at the end of this month.

If he's exhausted, he has a right to be.

"We saw some stretches where he was a really effective offensive player," said GM Stan Bowman. "Obviously, we're looking for that to be a bigger sample size."

Toews posted the lowest point total of his career (52) with the fewest number of goals (20). After collecting 8 points in each of the first five months of the season, Toews had 12 points in March before missing the final five games of the month, and three in April, with an upper-body injury.

More than that, however, Toews just didn't look like Toews for most of the season.

"Jonathan's role is not just offense," Bowman said. "He does some other things which might not be stressed as much.

"He's been at the top of the league in the last five or six years in faceoffs, and that's an important part for us. He's on the special teams. He plays against really good players every night. His task is to make sure that they don't score.

"So, from that perspective, he did a good job as a matchup center. The production is down a little bit from where we would like it to be, but we're not expecting him to score 100 points."

Still, Bowman knows the Hawks have to have much better from Toews in order to make the playoffs and make a deep run.

"Jonathan's in that group of guys we think will have a rebound season," Bowman said. "We're optimistic that's going to happen."

It would help if Brandon Saad returns to form after an ugly season in his first year back in Chicago.

"We didn't click as much as we would have liked," Saad said. "We have to focus on what we do well, bringing that to the table and rekindling what we had in the past."

When the Hawks brought back Saad to play with Toews, they were supposed to find the old magic. Instead, says Toews, they focused too much on their lack of production.

"There's moments where I put a lot of pressure on myself to create offense and put numbers on the board, and when that didn't happen it just seemed to snowball in the wrong direction," Toews said. "You've got to go out there and let it happen naturally.

"There's a ton of potential there for us. We just need to go out there and play loose and have fun and not force it."

So the Hawks are home watching the postseason for the first time in 10 years and the captain believes there will be lessons learned from having to witness the events on TV.

"It's not a great feeling," Toews said. "A lot of time to sit and think and reflect. It's not like you're burned out by any means, so it won't be fun, but there's a lot to see, a lot to learn from watching playoff hockey this year.

"The pain and hardship and failure and all those things, you've got to use those negative feelings the right way. You've got to realize, 'Hey, I don't want to go back down that same road,' so you're going to learn from it.

"It seems like we were saying the same things at the end of last year and sometimes you don't really see those things coming until it's too late.

"But I think we're all pretty optimistic as far as where our team's heading and where we're going to be next year."

It won't happen without one of the best ever playing like one of the best ever.

Toews may find the right answers if he can also discover the right questions.

• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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