CHICAGO — When it comes to when Jonathan Toews might return to the Blackhawks, everyone around the team is staying quiet.
They are more concerned about the health of the franchise’s longtime captain than his playing career.
Chicago held its first on-ice practice of training camp Monday, but who wasn't there was more notable than who was in attendance. Goaltender Corey Crawford signed with New Jersey in free agency and Brandon Saad was traded to Colorado in October. Defenseman Brent Seabrook and forward prospect Pius Suter were deemed “unfit to participate,” and forward Carl Soderberg was delayed by immigration issues.
And then there is the situation with Toews, who announced last week that he would be away from the team while he dealt with an illness that has left him feeling “drained and lethargic.” There has been no word from Toews or the Blackhawks on what might be causing his symptoms, and he has asked for privacy while he focuses on his recovery.
Star winger Patrick Kane, who has played with Toews since 2007, said he has spoken with the center, but he didn't want to talk about those conversations in any detail.
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“I'll just say that hopefully we have him back soon and if not, I think all of us kind of told him just to make sure he's OK before that happens,” Kane said. “He's obviously in the back of our minds and we're thinking about him. It doesn't really feel like a team without Jonny as your captain, so we definitely miss him.”
Toews, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Blackhawks, had 18 goals and 42 assists in 70 games last season. He also is one of the team’s best defensive forwards and face-off options.
The 56-game season begins Jan. 13 against the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, so there isn't much time to get Toews back up to speed even if he comes back soon. But coach Jeremy Colliton said Toews' return to the ice isn't the top priority.
“We're supporting him however we can. That's the No. 1 priority,” Colliton said, “and as far as when he's coming back and all those things, it doesn't really matter. We're going to be of assistance as much as we can, and he knows that we're supporting him.”
Toews' illness was part of a tough stretch for Chicago in the runup to camp that included surgeries for Kirby Dach and Alex Nylander that could sideline the young forwards for the entire season.
While the Blackhawks were missing several important players at practice, Dylan Strome skated with Kane and Alex DeBrincat a day after he finalized a two-year contract extension worth $6 million. Strome, who turns 24 in March, had been a restricted free agent.
The play of Strome takes on added significance with Toews and Dach out. He had 12 goals and 26 assists in 58 games last season, but he missed some time with a right ankle injury and said he tried to return too quickly.
He might have been pushed out to a wing with Toews and Dach in the lineup, but now he could be Chicago's top center.
“I think a lot of people are doubting us this year,” Strome said. “So it would be nice to turn it around and kind of quiet some people up.”