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Jonathan Toews’ red-hot run generates Hart Trophy attention

Mar 12, 2011, 10:24 PM EDT

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When Jonathan Toews was on top of the hockey world upon hoisting the Stanley Cup and receiving the Conn Smythe Trophy, I couldn’t help but temper the “best player in the world” talk ever so slightly.

People often take anything but boisterous praise as a statement that Player X isn’t any good, but that wasn’t the point at all. For one thing, it was difficult for me to accept the idea that Toews was on the highest rung of NHL players when his career high for points was 69. Beyond that, the Chicago Blackhawks also amassed an outrageously rich supporting cast that made it possible for Toews to simply play his world-class game without having to carry the team’s offense every night. Sure he was great, but probably not on the absolute highest level right then.

Ultimately, I ended with this point: we’ll see how great he is this season, when every team is gunning for his team and the salary cap dilutes that once-staggering depth.

For a while, it seemed like he finally met his match. The team was struggling to the point that a playoff berth was looking questionable at best (not to say they’re guaranteed to land one today) and his offensive numbers weren’t at an all-world level early on. It’s not fair to put all the blame on one player, but as the team captain, the spotlight shined the brightest on Toews.

Toews is on fire when his team needs him the most.

Yet now it appears that Toews is earning every bit of the somewhat-hasty plaudits he received last year. From his rookie year on, he’s exhibited a stunningly versatile game for such a young player, but his offensive output has never been better. After peaking at 69 points in his previous three seasons, Toews is producing his first point-per-game campaign in the NHL. He already has 28 goals and 40 assists for 68 points in 66 games so far in 2010-11.

The best part – though by no means the most surprising one – is that Toews is producing his greatest work when his team needs him the most. He scored a staggering nine goals and nine assists for 18 points in his last 11 games. The only time he didn’t score a point during that span was on March 8th, when the Florida Panthers beat the Hawks 3-2. He also received the league’s player of the month award for February, scoring 21 points in the shortest month of the year.

Toews forces himself into the Hart Trophy discussion.

Toews currently ranks ninth in the NHL with those 68 total points, but it’s that aforementioned all-around play and his lead-by-example mentality that causes many to consider him a worthy Hart Trophy candidate. (It probably doesn’t hurt that Toews has the best plus/minus rating among the league’s top 10 scorers, with an impressive +24 mark.)

One of the most underrated parts of his game is his work in the faceoff circle, by the way. He leads the league with 758 faceoffs won and also has an outstanding 57.4 winning percentage this season. That’s not an ability that will get you on highlight reels, but it’s one of those hard work/attention to detail areas that reveal Toews’ do-everything mentality.

So who knows if Toews will ever make it easy for Hart Trophy voters by putting up 100-point seasons and piling up Art Ross Trophy wins, but he’s the NHL’s answer to a “five-tool player” in baseball. He can score highlight reel goals, provide plenty of assists, displays responsible defensive positioning, is willing to apply the elbow grease necessary to score “dirty” goals in the playoffs and wins more than his far share of draws.

Despite losing the likes of Dustin Byfuglien to free agency, this Chicago team still sports plenty of firepower. Yet it seems like their fate is tied to the work of “Captain Serious.”

Toews is responding by pulling his team – and his already sterling reputation – into the upper echelon of the league’s elite.

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