DENVER – What am I going to do with all my furniture?
The affable defenceman says he and his sweetheart, Kerry, had just gotten married two days prior and were still riding “that wedding high” when GM Lou Lamoriello suddenly shipped him one conference and two times zones to the west.
“For a very brief moment, it was a down feeling — because we had such good people out there, and my wife’s family is from the northeast. So, we had a lot of support out there. And then to know that we were being traded to a team where we didn’t know anybody out here was a little bit nerve-wracking,” Toews explains.
“We just had to roll with the punches.”
Toews was a puck-mover on the rise, a 2014 fourth-rounder rounding into form, and a key piece in helping the Isles reach the 2020 Conference Final. He was also a heck of an asset, and a restricted free agent who had filed a salary arbitration case against a franchise tight to the cap.
Lamoriello trusted emerging first-rounder Noah Dobson would be able to fill some of Toews’ void for cheap, so he dealt Toews to Colorado’s Joe Sakic for a pair of second-round picks in the 2021 (Finnish centre Aatu Raty) and 2022 drafts.
If we are to adjudicate the transaction today, Sakic and Toews look like clear winners.
Certainly, it did not go unnoticed when Lamoriello’s club missed the playoffs this season, and the GM stated that a primary off-season objective would be improving his defence “offensively.”
Toews’ bummed-out reaction to getting uprooted quickly subsided once he and Kerry realized how well they would be treated in Denver.
“This team is like a family. They made us feel like we were in a spot where we were taken care of and supported, and that was really special,” says Toews, who still speaks highly of Lamoriello and the Islanders.
“Joe and his staff saw something in me and gave me a chance and to trade for me, and I’m trying to prove them right. Make good on that.”
How about making great on that?
Toews’ breakthrough campaign saw him top all defencemen with a plus-52 rating and finish top-five in even-strength points (45).
The elite names above him in that category — Roman Josi, partner Cale Makar, Victor Hedman and Kris Letang — are all Norris winners or finalists.
The Abbotsford, B.C., native’s excellence has bled into the deepest playoff run of his life.
Toews is averaging 25:49 a night against top competition. The Avs are generating 59 per cent of scoring chances and outscoring hefty opposition (Nashville, St. Louis, Edmonton, Tampa) 20-15 when Toews hops the boards.
The guy is a plus-8 with 13 points through 15 games.
And yet, partnered with the second coming of Bobby Orr, Toews’s remarkable performance since the trade has been relegated to sidebar status.
“He’s one of those guys that you watch him once, you might be underwhelmed. And then the more you watch him, the more you’re going to like him,” says coach Jared Bednar, praising Toews’ two-way effort.
“I think he’s one of the top defencemen in the league. He started to get a little bit more credit this year around the Olympic talk and his name getting thrown out there, which I think is very deserving. You’ll see in this series just what he means to us.”
Lightning coach Jon Cooper was set to guide Team Canada’s Olympic squad in Beijing, and before the NHL pulled out of the tournament, there was speculation that the country would bring both halves of the Toews-Makar unit.
Now faced with solving that duo, Cooper half-jokes that “almost every Canadian on Colorado was probably on the radar at some point.” Still, Toews had grabbed the coach’s attention since his Islanders days with his rare quiver of vision, wheels and poise.
“That’s part of the problem, too, is when they can play at a high rate of speed, but they can think it out. There are guys out there that can’t do that, but they seem to have an arsenal of guys that can,” Cooper says.
“Makar is going to steal a lot of the headlines, and it’s richly deserved. But to have a Toews in the two-hole, it’s a pretty darn good player to have back there. Then especially when they’re on the ice together.
“They have a well-put-together D with guys that can skate. They’re the fuel that runs the engine.”
Is Toews OK with flying under the radar, revving from under the hood?
“Absolutely,” Toews replies. “We have guys on our team that deserve all the praise. But our team is what makes us so good. It’s not one or two players. You know, that’s the way it goes in this league. Every award is basically individual except for the Stanley Cup, so that’s why we’re here.
“I hate the cameras, honestly.”
Hate the hype, love the game.
Makar says chemistry with his partner developed rapidly because they both approach the role with an eye toward creating scoring chances. The quicker they can bust out of their own zone, the more fun they can have torturing opponents at the far end.
Toews admits, though, that it took him a while to wrap his head around Bednar’s up-tempo approach, having been trained in Barry Trotz’s stricter, risk-averse plan on the Island.
“We are allowed to use our speed and our skill to defend more so than just playing in a hardcore structure,” says Toews, proud of his ability to adapt and thrive.
“Our offence gets a lot of praise for how good it is, and a lot of it stems from our D-core being able to break pucks out and put our forwards in good situations with speed in the middle of the ice and just joining the attack as well. Our defending is hard, and it’s quick, and we use our speed to slow teams down and get them out of their groove.”
Makar believes “it’s unfortunate” that the spotlight has been tilted so aggressively in his direction, when Toews is worthy of some more shine.
“He’s one of the best defencemen in the league. And obviously he’s a guy that might be a little bit undervalued, but he’s such an important player for us,” Makar says.
“He is a driving force for us on the back end. So calm. And his presence is just so felt every time he’s on the ice. Good in all areas of the game. He’s an incredible player, and he should be a player that’s up every single year for the top defenceman award and everything.”
Toews, naturally, only has eyes for one trophy.
And with the Stanley Cup arriving in his new city, right here but three wins away, the defenceman thinks about his mom sacrificing her mornings driving him to 6 a.m. practices.
He appreciates Kerry documenting this time with their baby boy Bennett, too young to grasp what this all could mean.
And he remembers those epic boyhood street hockey and roller rink days in B.C., playing his siblings and friends games on end for the right to hoist an imaginary mug.
“You replicate tournaments or playing for the Cup and throwing the gloves and winning like that,” Toews says. “But it’s nothing like the real thing here.”
This content was originally published here.