Jonathan Toews on his Blackhawks future and beyond: Trade, free agent, retirement or rebuild?

CHICAGO — There are very few people in hockey that Jonathan Toews can truly envy. The Blackhawks captain has his name on the Stanley Cup three times. He owns a Conn Smythe Trophy, a Selke, two Olympic gold medals, and he’s a lock for the Hall of Fame. So don’t shed a tear for Toews, he’s done just fine for himself on the ice.

But he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy — an inescapable feeling of why can’t that be me — when Evgeni Malkin, just shy of his 36th birthday, signed a four-year contract with the still-competitive Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this month, a deal that essentially ensures he’ll spend his entire career with the team that drafted him, the team with which he won three championships of his own, and the city that embraced him.

“I’m not going to say, hey, look at that, look at how the grass could be greener on the other side,” Toews said Tuesday in a conversation with The Athletic. “But when you go through a couple of tough seasons like this, it definitely puts things in perspective and reminds you how good you had it when things were all clicking and the stars aligned for us. It kind of breaks your heart to think that way, to remember how crazy and how exciting it is in this city to play for these fans when we’re on top. But this is a different stage in life, where the challenges are different, and you do the best you can.”

Other than spilling his drink all over the table during the talk, Toews looked to be in fine form, tanned and fit and happy. He’ll pop back to Winnipeg for a week later this summer, but Chicago is his full-time home, and he had just wrapped up his daily workout at Fifth Third Arena. He said he feels great, especially compared with where he was a year ago, when he had just announced his pending return to the NHL after a year off due to mounting and career-threatening health issues. Back then, he was just getting his legs back, just getting his wind back. It was n’t until the second half of the season that he even felt remotely like his old self again, and his play on the ice reflected that.

This season, he’s hoping to turn back the clock and return to his more dominant form.

“People try to tell me that I’m getting older, and I’m not accepting that anytime soon,” he said with a broad smile.

When it was pointed out that 34 is still pretty young in the grand scheme of things, Toews noted the long and heavy miles he’s put on his body and joked, “Yeah, but 34 going on what, though? Going on 25, we’ll say. How about that?”

So yes, Toews feels physically prepared for the rigors of an 82-game season, of playing the hard and heavy two-way game he loves to play, of keeping up with an increasingly younger and faster league. He’s so excited about proving everyone wrong — and proving himself right — that he can hardly wait for October to roll around.

But the real question is how prepared mentally is Toews for the 2022-23 season? A season in which his team is actively trying to lose in order to secure a top pick in next year’s loaded draft. A season in which Toews will look around the locker room and barely recognize anyone other than his career-long running buddy, Patrick Kane.

Toews and Kane in 2019. (James Guillory / USA Today)

General manager Kyle Davidson has been talking about a long-term rebuild since the moment he replaced Stan Bowman on an interim basis last October. He’s been blunt and honest about what that entails, and he’s kept Toews and Kane in the loop throughout the process. But all the while, Toews stubbornly stuck to his belief that there was enough talent in the room to turn things around quickly, to set himself up for another playoff run with the only NHL team he’s ever known.

The Brandon Hagel deal at the trade deadline was a bucket of cold water over the head. The Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach trades earlier this month were outright slaps in the face. There’s no pretending anymore.

And now Toews, like Kane, is facing the possibility — no, the very high probability — that this will be his last season in Chicago. And that he might even be shipped out before it’s over.

“When we traded Hags, and then Cat and Kirby, reality really set in that, OK, this is where we’re at, and they’ve got to really focus on the future,” Toews said. “And it’s just unfortunate that it’s come to that. But it is what it is. So much of that stuff has been out of my control for quite some time, and it’s a weird place to be in as a captain. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, what should be your concern and what shouldn’t be, aside from just playing your game. So my head is here, thinking about what’s right in front of me, what the next day or the next game or the next challenge is. These last few years have taught me to be in the moment and cut out the things that I really can’t control, and to just focus my energy on what I can control so I can really enjoy the game from there.”

That’s just it, though. Toews has all the control. At least until next summer, when his eight-year contract expires. He, like Kane, has a full no-movement clause. He cannot be traded without his permission. Davidson has said he wants both players to stick around, to be the pillars of the rebuild, to teach the young players how to be professionals and how to be winners. It’s a role Toews would excel at — he’s typically been great with young players, the first guy to invite them out to dinner when they get called up, the last guy on the ice with them working on faceoffs after a morning skate. It’s a role he’s relished. But it’s different integrating young players into a successful and veteran team as opposed to holding so many young players’ hands throughout another losing campaign.

Still, with all he’s accomplished in his career, would it be so bad to play out his career as the elder statesman and set the stage for the next great Chicago run? Well, it might not have been before Davidson went scorched earth on the roster.

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about a five-plus-year process, according to Kyle,” Toews said. “So that part of it doesn’t sound appealing to me at all. I can’t speak for Kaner, but I definitely feel that the amount of turnover our team has gone through every single year these last three or four years, that’s where it gets really, really draining. and exhausting. You have a guy like Alex DeBrincat who was under Kaner’s wing. And I like to think that Kirby and I had that bond in some ways, too. And out they go, out the door. Over and over, we’ve seen that turnover. I’m learning to be more patient, but there’s no doubt that timeline is pretty daunting, and pretty exhausting to think about. So I’m not going to sit here and say what I’m going to do or what the future holds for me, because I really don’t know.”

Well, it sort of sounds like he knows. At least, in the very long run. It’s hard to imagine Davidson signing Toews after this season, given all the moves he’s made so far. And given those comments, it’s hard to imagine Toews agreeing to any kind of multi-year deal to stick around long term. At this point, it feels more like when, not if, Toews follows so many of his teammates out the door.

So that leaves a few possibilities.

• He could waive his no-movement clause and get shipped out ahead of the trade deadline. If he plays at the level he played over the second half of last season — or even better, as he fully expects to — he would be a dynamite addition as a third-line center for a contender. He’ll have to be on top of his game for anyone to take on his $10.5 million cap hit, though, even if the Blackhawks retain half of it.

Toews is well aware of this.

“If I don’t play good hockey, what value do I have anyways?” he said with a wry grin. “But I’m not going to say that if I’m playing some of the best hockey in my career and a great fit and a great opportunity arises that I might not just go see what that looks like, and see what that feels like . Just for the fun of it.”

• He could refuse to waive his NMC (or he could simply be untradeable) and stick it out, turning the end of the season into a months-long going-away party, a reason for fans to shell out a few bucks and come to the United Center.

Or maybe, just maybe, things won’t be quite so terrible, and he’ll be enjoying playing with so many youngsters more than he expected. Maybe he’ll actually want to stick around. Maybe he signs a cheap one-year deal afterward. Or maybe he signs elsewhere, satisfied that his Blackhawks career ended on his own terms. If so, April 13 against Philadelphia — against whom he won his first Cup and secured his Conn Smythe — is his last game as captain of the Chicago Blackhawks.

• Or maybe this is it. Maybe, at his age and with all his body has been through over 16 years, he’ll decide to retire at the end of the season, content with his career and his comeback, and ready for the next chapter, whatever that is.

He didn’t rule this idea out, but it doesn’t sound like his preference, either. He truly feels he has a lot more in the tank.

“I really can’t answer that for you,” he said. “As boring of a response as this is, that’s the beauty of it — I can just be in the moment. I learned to really love the game again and find the joy in it, and to play with energy, play with passion, play at a high level. I feel like I still have so much to give to this team and to the game, and I’m excited to show that not only to myself, but to everybody. I don’t feel any pressure to play a certain amount of time, though. I think I’ll know when I know.”

The arrival of new head coach Luke Richardson has helped offset some of Toews’ disappointment with the direction of the franchise. Her raved about Richardson’s mindset and experience, and said everyone he’s talked to about the new coach had nothing but great things to say about him.

After all, coaches and players don’t tank; team tanks. And Toews had a twinkle in his eye when he talked about what the goals of the coaching staff and the players will be.

“Luke’s message is we’re going to work hard, we’re going to be prepared, we’re going to play as a team, and we’re going to go out there and try to win every single game,” Toews said . “I’m really excited to have a chance to play for Luke.”

That said, Toews acknowledged that you “can’t blame them” for tanking, either. He and Kane are living proof that bottoming out and getting top-three draft picks can lead directly to championships, and he knows it.

So what will the 2022-23 season look like? What jersey will Toews be wearing in April? And next October?

He honestly can’t answer that. And frankly, he’s trying not to think about it. Everyone wants to have the career Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang have had — and will continue to have — in Pittsburgh. But nearly everybody else would give almost anything to have the career Toews and Kane have had, no matter what’s happened the last few years, and no matter what happens the next few.

“I’m not going to make any promises either way,” Toews said. “The fans and the organization should know that my heart and my loyalty is with them. Chicago is my home. It’s really been the wildest dream I ever could imagine, since the day I got drafted. Really, what more could I ask for?”

(Top photo: Timothy T. Ludwig / USA Today)


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