One of the most compelling stories approaching the NHL trade deadline concerns the Chicago Blackhawks and standout forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
Early in a deep and likely painful rebuild, the Blackhawks could be faced with moving one or both faces of the franchise: two future Hall of Fame forwards with championship rings that would appeal to any contending team.
But a Kane or Toews trade is highly nuanced for multiple reasons. The first and obvious one is the responsibility that both players bear in front of the salary cap. Even in a high-growth cap environment, getting $10.5 million in cap hits to the books by mid-year is challenging. It’s even more difficult in today’s era of slow growth. Also, Kane and Toews have no-move clauses, which means they have to be willing to go to any landing spot.
Here’s another challenge: Chicago expects a significant return in any Toews or Kane trade, considering their pedigree. But they are both 34 years old, with expiring contracts, and their production has declined considerably in recent years. They’re also strikingly different players: Kane is an elite playmaker and scorer whose defensive play has always left something to be desired, while Toews has built a reputation as a more polished two-way striker.
What teams need to assess is how much of the degradation in Kane and Toews’ performance is a result of the team they play for and the weapons around them, versus how much their game starts to erode. Let’s take a look at some metrics to show how its dominance has declined particularly noticeably in recent years.
To start, let’s look at individual offensive production (all situations):
There are two very different stories here. Kane has been able to maintain his scoring dominance: His production in the 2022-23 season has slowed a bit, but that’s an impressively flat (and predictable) trend line. Also, I think he matches what we see watching these games. When Kane has the puck and the time and space to work, he’s very dangerous. True yesterday, true today and probably true tomorrow.
Meanwhile, Toews has started to see a sharp downward turn in his score rating. Teams aren’t trading for Toews for the main reason that he scores goals, but this is a notable meltdown that started when Toews entered his 30s and has lasted for about five seasons.
Next, let’s look at the trend for expected goal rates (goalie neutral), which is a major adjustment for a Chicago team rebuilding everywhere right now. This is where it gets alarming:
Toews is no longer the defensive wizard he once was, and that’s been true for about five seasons, with a remarkably bad drop again this season. Meanwhile, Kane would be outshot and outshot on some of his best days in his prime, combating that territorial disadvantage with his ability to score seemingly at will. But the overall point here is that neither player is driving the advantage game with even force right now. Both are being shredded defensively.
One notable point here, especially with this year’s significant downturn, is that Kane and Toews haven’t played much of each other. Toews has been playing more commonly with Taylor Raddysh and Philipp Kurashev, with defensemen Connor Murphy and Jack Johnson behind his line. Kane has been left with more skilled players: Max Domi and Andreas Athanasiou on top, with Jake McCabe and Seth Jones behind him. Unraveling the impacts of teammate quality, particularly for Toews, who isn’t really working with much, on each player’s overall production will be critical for any interested buyer.
But ultimately, that’s why we’re worrying about Toews’ scoring exhaustion, Toews’ breaking of the territorial advantage, and Kane’s outright defensive capitulation. He’s creating significant goal disadvantages for the Blackhawks, and that’s not to be underestimated. Part of the reason Chicago is terrible, and has been for a few years, is because its best players aren’t performing:
These are flashing red lights, buyer beware. Toews and Kane as pure rentals are intriguing choices largely because (a) we’ve seen many high-producing years in years past; and (b) there is a good faith argument that their most recent play has been hampered by the quality of the players around them.
But any team considering a deal must not only consider how much it is willing to pay for players who are no longer outplaying their opponents. Additionally, any team considering an extension as part of a deadline trade should consider the structure of any contract should the downgrade be actual.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference
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