Geek of the Week: Is It Time to Drop Jonathan Toews?

by Ben Burnett on November 3, 2019


Last year marked quite the bounce-back for Jonathan Toews. The three-time Stanley Cup champ and captain of the Chicago Blackhawks had turned into a bit of a fantasy pumpkin in the back half of his 20s before resurrecting his career at age 30, scoring a career-high 35 goals and 81 points. However, 12 games into 2019-20, and Toews’ renaissance appears to be fairly short-lived. The Chicago centerman has notched two goals and one assist through his first three games, for a per-82 game pace of 21 points.

I don’t need to tell you that’s unsustainably low for a player who has never put up a pace below 50 points over a full season. But what exactly can we expect from Toews over the rest of 2019-20? Was last year a complete aberration, or is this a player who is going to continue to struggle to be fantasy relevant?

2018-19 under the hood

The sudden rejuvenation of Toews’ career seemed to be backed up by his return to playing with Patrick Kane at even strength and on the power play. That upgrade in deployment became feasible after the breakout of Alex DeBrincat gave the Hawks enough firepower to run more than one scoring line. In a cushy role, Toews averaged his highest time-on-ice-per-game rate (21:00), and the highest percentage of Chicago’s power-play minutes (67 percent) of his career. Last year was also the first time he topped 20 power-play points in a campaign since 2010-11, and the highest shot rate he managed (2.86 shots per game) in that timespan.

Toews likely rode some unsustainable numbers to those point totals though, especially on the power play, where he netted nine goals while shooting 18.4 percent on 49 shots. At even strength, Toews shot 13.5 percent, a mark he hadn’t hit since 2016, when he was 26. In the four years between these peak performances, Toews shot 11.5 percent at even strength and 14.5 percent on the power play. Perhaps given what we’ve learned about aging curves in the NHL, the greater sample size is more meaningful than the most recent one. This would imply that Toews’ 2018-19 results are the outlier, as opposed to his slow start this year.

Reasons for optimism

A few obvious numbers stick out that suggest positive regression for Kane. First of all, his shooting percentage is unsustainably low at 8 percent. That number will likely wind up closer to 11 or 12 percent. Heading into Saturday night’s games, his team ranked 27th in the league in both power-play shooting (7.32 percent) and at even strength (7.37). While one would hope for a bounceback at 5 on 5, it seems reasonable to expect more luck on the power play. Only one team has finished with sub-9 percent shooting in the last several years. The Hawks are also underperforming their expected goal total on the power play by about two goals.

Toews has also played nearly 40 power-play minutes without registering a point. Ahead of Saturday’s games, the Hawks ranked 29th in the league with a 9.1 percent conversion rate with the man advantage. Last year, they were near the middle of the league with a 20.2 percent rate. Given the team has had no significant roster shakeup that should upset the power play, I defer to last year’s pace as the more likely barometer of where this team will wind up at the end of the year. There should be better days ahead for the Blackhawks’ special teams’ unit.

Signs of concern

While Toews’ 8 percent shooting shows room for improvement, his overall shot rates are a concern. Through 12 games, the center is on pace for 171 shots. That’s his lowest shot rate in his career, and the first time he’s paced for fewer than 200 shots since his rookie season in 2007-08. While he’s averaging about 70 fewer seconds of ice time this year, that doesn’t go all the way to explain the downtick in shots. Toews’ shot rate is down at all strengths this season (5.77 shots / 60), and it’s unclear whether or not it’s going to return to last year’s 8.22 shots / 60.

The other concern for Toews is his recent usage. In Saturday night’s game, Toews spent all of his full-strength TOI between Brandon Saad and Alex Nylander. That line is a clear downgrade from the Hawks’ overloaded offensive line of Kane, DeBrincat, and Dylan Strome. Toews was also recently demoted off the top power play, and is currently skating with an all-rookie unit of Kirby Dach, Dominik Kubalik, Nylander, and Adam Boqvist. Though the unit did score on their one power play opportunity in Saturday night’s game, it isn’t ideal to see Toews split from the tested PP1 unit in Chicago.

Rest of season

It would be foolish to assume Toews is going to finish closer to 2018-19’s totals while ignoring his sluggish start this year, just because it’s a larger and fairly recent sample size. Instead, I want to increase our scope, and look at how he’s played over the last four years (including this one) to try and get the most reasonable and recent sample size we can for projection purposes. We’ll use his first dozen games to estimate his time on ice for the rest of this season, then plug in his per-60 rate stats to project his assist and shot rates, before using his four-year shooting percentage to try and nail down rest-of-season goal totals.

The bottom row features the projected totals from the ES and PP rows, as well as data from the 12 games we’ve seen Toews play so far this season. You’ll also notice the sum of the ATOI of the top two rows doesn’t match the total ATOI row, and that’s because Toews also averages about 1:45 of penalty kill time on ice per game. I haven’t included that in my projections of his offensive numbers, as he hasn’t produced SHP reliably since his 7 SHP season in 2016.
 

 

GP

ATOI

G

A

Pts

SOG

ES

70

14:35

16

22

38

142

PP

70

3:30

6

12

18

45

Total

82

19:50

24

35

59

212


Conclusion and analysis

I think there are plenty of leagues where Toews can be left to the waiver wire. In particular, if you’re in a league where Chicago’s captain has already been dropped and is sitting in free agency. The one argument for Toews through the first few games of his slump was that he was locked in to that cushy deployment alongside Kane at even strength and on the power play. That has proven to be false after this weekend’s games. Toews should have to earn his way back into your lineup by producing, the same way he has to earn his way back into head coach Jeremy Colliton’s good graces.

If you’re in a 14-team league I can understand holding on to Toews and hoping he turns things around, but in a lot of ways he’s looking like Derek Stepan in Arizona: given all of the opportunities to cash in on great deployment, before finally being demoted to the middle six. Given Toews is still owned in 59 percent of leagues, I think it’s up to your waiver wire whether or not you should be dropping him. I’d happily stream him out for centers with similar ownership percentages who are actually getting decent deployment like Nazem Kadri, Jack Hughes, or Paul Stastny.

Follow me on Twitter @burnett_hockey.