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Ed Willes: Toews refuses to accept his Hawks may be latest victim to Father Time

Chicago Blackhawks centre Jonathan Toews deflects the puck in front of Washington Capitals' goaltender Braden Holtby during NHL action earlier this season.
Chicago Blackhawks centre Jonathan Toews deflects the puck in front of Washington Capitals' goaltender Braden Holtby during NHL action earlier this season.

CHICAGO — In his pre-game remarks to the media Thursday, Chicago Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton talked about his struggling team and the challenge of facing that well-known NHL powerhouse, the Vancouver Canucks.

“We feel we have another level to give and we’re excited about this opportunity,” he said. “They’re a good team and sometimes you want that team to push you to that level.”

Now, in another time and place — like any time since 2011 — the idea of the Blackhawks using the Canucks as a measuring stick would rank as an absurdity. But in early November of the 2019-20 season, this is the reality for both teams.

The Blackhawks, the three-time Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, the team whose lineup is festooned with future hall of famers, went into Thursday’s meeting in 12th place in the Western Conference, 26th overall, and being the NHL’s lowest-scoring team.

The Canucks, you ask? They’re third in the West with a young, star-studded lineup that sits second in the conference in goals.

Given their respective histories over the last decade, it’s difficult to process this jarring change in fortunes, but the standings don’t lie. The Blackhawks have succumbed to the forces that inevitably topple a champion. The Canucks, finally, seem to have broken out of their own cycle of futility.

Father Time remains undefeated. The Blackhawks are simply his latest victim.

“We’ve changed a lot over the years and that’s a good thing,” said team captain Jonathan Toews. “I think (Patrick) Kane and I will always admit there’s a ton we can learn from these young guys. You kind of mix your experience in with the way the game’s been changing.

“Obviously we’re not where we want to be, but we’re headed in the right direction as far as the old and new mixing together and finding a happy balance.”

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Which is about what you’d expect from the peerless leader. But through 14 games this season, the Blackhawks have one player, Kane, in double digits in scoring and their leading goal scorers are Kane and Alex DeBrincat with four each.

The larger impression, in fact, is a team that’s been caught between two cycles. The Hawks’ great veterans can no longer carry this team and their younger players aren’t ready to assume the responsibilities of leadership. The same thing has happened to virtually every team that has either won or competed for a Stanley Cup.

Like all those teams, the Hawks are also having trouble accepting their fate.

A year ago about this time, general manager Stan Bowman fired head coach Joel Quenneville, the franchise fixture who had been behind the bench for all three Cup runs. At the time, Bowman said the Blackhawks were a playoff team and the move was made with the postseason in mind.

But the Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the second straight year and look like they’ve taken another step backward this season. The defence is in shambles and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook can no longer hold it together. There is still high-end talent up front with Kane and DeBrincat but the supporting cast hasn’t stepped up. Brandon Saad has been a disappointment since he was reacquired from Columbus for, yikes, Artemi Panarin. Andrew Shaw was repatriated this year and has two goals.

Toews was never a big scorer but he’s 2-4-6 through 14 games and is a minus-four.

Then there are the kids. While they maintain their goal is still the playoffs — stop us if this sounds familiar, Canucks’ fans — the lineup says something different. Eighteen-year-old Kirby Dach, the third overall pick from last summer’s draft, will stay with the team this season. Adam Boqvist, the 19-year-old eighth overall pick from the year before, is taking a regular shift on the blue-line. Alex Nylander, the 21-year-old former Sabres first rounder, is being groomed for a feature role up front.

Toews, now a grizzled 31-year-old, was asked about the influx of youth in the Blackhawks’ lineup. He sounded wistful as he recalled his own experience breaking into the league.

“It’s that feeling you get when you make it to the NHL,” he said. “It’s been your dream your entire life, which obviously hasn’t been very long. But everything is exciting. Not that it wears off, but as your career goes along it’s good to look at guys like that to see the excitement and appreciation they have. You try to recapture that yourself.”

Even if it’s difficult to recapture that feeling.

“The first Cup we won was tough but we were pretty naive,” Toews continued. “We didn’t know what we were up against. You just go out and play and you expect to find a way to win every night.

“It gets harder with the pressure. These young guys coming in know the fans and the media expect (to win in Chicago). That’s the standard and that’s where we want to be. Anything less is disappointing to everyone around here.”

And a lot different than what they’re used to.

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