TAMPA – It could have been his predictable humility. Or it could have been a sneaky, but brilliant, bit of gamesmanship. Then again, there’s a chance Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was being entirely truthful when he was asked to compare Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews to himself.
“The reality is, Jonathan is bigger, stronger…better,” Yzerman said. “He just is.”
Cue the record scratch. Yzerman, in case nobody has checked lately, is in the Hall of Fame. He’s eight shy of 700 career goals, has won three Stanley Cups, an Olympic gold medal, a Conn Smythe Trophy, a Selke Trophy and is regarded as one of the greatest leaders to ever play the game. It’s outrageous to suggest that Toews, at this point in his career, could share the same rarified status as one of the game’s all-time greats.
Or is it? Toews cannot, and probably never will, boast Yzerman’s offensive totals, but he’s playing in an entirely different era and will still score well in excess of 1,000 career points if he stays healthy. He already has one Conn Smythe and stands a good chance of adding another if the Blackhawks prevail in the Stanley Cup final. He’s already won a Selke and is a finalist for this season. He has two Olympic gold medals and like Yzerman, is revered as an all-time great leader. And Yzerman didn’t win his first Stanley Cup until he was 32. By that time, Toews could have a Cup ring for each finger.
“Over the course of my career, my play evolved…all of us become more defense-minded players, more well rounded players,” Yzerman said. “Jonathan has been that from Day 1 since he’s come into the league, just a complete hockey player. He’s bigger, stronger than me. I’m not even sure I could take him in a race either, so he’s probably faster. Just a better hockey player.”
Yzerman does not tend to blurt things like this out, so you’d have to think he’s been pondering this question and how he would answer it. But if he were trying to put some pressure on Toews and take some off his own team entering the series, it probably won’t work. And Yzerman would know this. There is nothing Toews has not dealt with, nothing he hasn’t seen, nothing that he could face in this Stanley Cup final, that would faze him. So perhaps it’s time to start taking this comparison seriously.
Perhaps, but the subject of the comparison has no interest in doing so. Their careers never intersected as players, so all of Toews’ interactions with Yzerman have been on the Canadian national team level, starting in 2007 when Yzerman took Toews for the World Championship team out of the University of North Dakota. Since then, he has had plenty of opportunities to admire Toews’ work. But Toews himself couldn’t have distanced himself more from the comparison.
“I want to call him Mr. Yzerman, but I know he’d probably get mad at me if I said that,” Toews said. “Steve is a very complimentary person and I don’t know if he’d say anything less than that. But I’d just take that with a grain of salt. I think everyone here knows that’s pretty much untrue. But it means a lot to hear any sort of praise from a guy like that.”
Whatever Yzerman’s intentions, if any, it is an indication of the impact Toews has had through the course of his career. His playoff beard is far less Amish looking than it was when the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010, so there’s that. But some forget that in 2013 when the Blackhawks won their second Cup, Toews was on the verge of losing his composure while he was being physically pounded by the Detroit Red Wings in the second round, then had to be talked off the ledge by teammate Brent Seabrook during the final when he wasn’t producing. The Toews we’re seeing now is a seasoned veteran who has definitely been there, done that and picked up the commemorative Stanley Cup champions hat.
“I was named captain of the team at a very young age (he was 20) and my understanding of what that meant at that age was very different than it is now,” Toews said. “Every year, you’re pushing yourself to be a better player. You realize the game doesn’t just happen on the ice.”
But when it does, there are not many players in the league a coach would like to throw over the boards more than Toews. He plays a true 200-foot game, never cheats, is always on the right side of the puck and is one of the best clutch players in the world today. That trait was on full display in Game 7 of the Western Conference final when he buried the Anaheim Ducks with two first-period goals as the Blackhawks cruised to victory and punched their ticket to the final.
“I said it after we beat Anaheim,” said Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith. “I wouldn’t want to have any other captain as my captain in the league. There’s nobody else I’d rather have beside me.”