Falling 4-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins was not the only loss for the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday night. Jonathan Toews, the team’s only consistent offensive presence as of late and likely its single most important player, was injured on a hit by Brooks Orpik during the second period and did not return to the game afterward.
The hit itself was clean; Orpik led with his shoulder and the principal point of contact was not Toews’ head. Details on what exactly the injury is are and will almost surely stay next to impossible to find, as the Blackhawks are notorious for keeping such information strictly in-house.
As for how long Chicago’s captain will be out of action, that remains to be seen. Joel Quenneville termed it “not serious” after the game, a phrase he also applied to Patrick Kane‘s recent injury. A more precise timetable will probably come out later on Monday.
The seemingly invulnerable Toews going down brings to light an intriguing question: namely, could the Blackhawks survive the long-term absence of No. 19, and could they do any damage in the playoffs without him?
The initial answer is a pronounced “no,” and some basic analysis supports it. Putting aside the dull and dry arguments about leadership, morale or other such unquantifiable muck, the hard statistics underlie Toews’ tremendous importance to Chicago’s success. He drives puck possession to a degree that no other Blackhawks player comes close to matching, owning a relative corsi number that dwarfs all other full-time roster players.
Toews is a key cog on both the penalty kill and power play, and is both the best offensive and defense center on the team. After a slow first two-thirds of the season, he has been on fire since returning from the Olympics and is Chicago’s most natural and versatile goal scorer. The face-off dot, a key focus of teams that emphasize puck possession as the Blackhawks do, is yet another area in which Toews excels.
At full strength, Chicago has a small edge over or is on par with the other elite teams in the NHL. Without Toews, however, the Blackhawks take an enormous step back, and are no longer a relevant postseason force. His health, as well as Kane’s, will be absolutely essential come mid-April.