NHL99: Marián Hossa’s natural talent made him a star, his drive made him a Hall of Famer

NHL99: Marián Hossa’s natural talent made him a star, his drive made him a Hall of Famer

Welcome to NHL99The Athletic’s countdown of the best 100 players in modern NHL history. We’re ranking 100 players but calling it 99 because we all know who’s No. 1 — it’s the 99 spots behind No. 99 we have to figure out. Every Monday through Saturday until February we’ll unveil new members of the list.

It took just seconds from the first time Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews lifted the Stanley Cup for him to begin looking for where to hand it next. Amid a crowing of “woos” from his Blackhawks teammates that night in Philadelphia in June 2010, NBC microphones picked up a question being exclaimed on the ice.

“Where’s Hoss?!”

Marián Hossa was, in fact, standing right next to the captain. And the Cup was finally about to be his.

Other Blackhawks had certainly waited and wished for the Stanley Cup, even on a generally young team. But no one’s wait had been quite like Hossa’s. Two seasons prior, he had been traded at the deadline to the up-and-coming Penguins, for whom he turned in an electrifying playoff run that came up two wins short against the Red Wings. He had followed that up by joining the champion Red Wings that following season, helping them to another trip to the Cup final only to lose in seven to the Penguins team he had just left.

Going into his third straight final in 2010, then, one can only imagine what was going through Hossa’s head.

“Lots of what ifs,” he recently told The Athletic.

But when Toews turned and handed him the Cup, there was no more waiting or wondering. Hossa was a champion. And he wasn’t done.

Hossa and those early-2010s Blackhawks teams quenched their championship thirsts with a firehose, winning the Cup twice more, in 2013 and 2015.

“Every one was special,” he said. “But the first one was the toughest one.”

This is the Hossa lore you know — the climax of his storied career. He would have gone down as one of the greats of his era regardless of whether that Cup had ever found him, but having his name enshrined on it nonetheless cemented his legacy.

The No. 12 pick in the 1997 NHL Draft, Hossa was a big, fast winger with dynamic scoring ability — a package rare enough that he may never have needed to be anything else in the NHL.

“To me, one of the most beautiful, powerful skaters that the game had,” former Detroit teammate Kris Draper said. “Those first couple strides — unreal, the way he could create separation.”

“He was big, and I remember him using (it) and protecting the puck while using his body,” said Todd McLellan, who coached against Hossa throughout his prime. “(He had) those skills, and then he had vision and the shot and everything else that went with it.”

In 1,309 NHL games, spanning 19 seasons, Hossa scored 525 goals and 1,134 points. Those numbers alone may well have gotten him into the Hockey Hall of Fame. But that wasn’t enough for him. He also became a premier defensive winger, finishing in the top 20 of Selke Trophy voting 10 times.

“Sometimes we all think like, ‘OK, I’m working as hard as I can work,’” said Mike Yeo, who coached Hossa in Pittsburgh. “But Player A and Player B, they quite often have a different definition of what working hard is. And he’s that guy, I think, that he just showed everybody else that there’s another level of work to your game.”

That marriage of rare physical tools, and equally uncommon drive, ultimately led to Hossa’s placement at No. 83 on The Athletic’s list of the NHL’s 100 greatest players of the post-expansion era. But it doesn’t answer the impossible question of what pushed someone who already could do so much, to keep driving harder — especially on the decidedly unglamorous defensive side of the puck.

“It’s just in him,” hypothesized former Pittsburgh teammate Ryan Malone.

(Bill Smith / NHLI via Getty Images)

When the news reached the Penguins in late February 2008 that the team had traded for Hossa, it sent a loud message within an organization that had won only one playoff game since 2001.

“It was like, ‘Oh man, we’re going for it,’” Malone said. “That’s when, like, it hit me: ‘We’re going for a Stanley Cup.’”

Hossa was coming off a 43-goal, 100-point season the year before in Atlanta, and four straight seasons at or above 80 points. He was one of the game’s elite.

“His speed was amazing,” Sergei Gonchar said. “If you think about it, he was so powerful and strong on his skates, he was like a horse. So hard to knock him (off) the puck. One of those guys that you’re going to have to be really in the perfect position to make sure he’s not taking advantage of you. Otherwise (he’s) either going to skate by you or use his body to protect the puck, and you’re not going to get anything.”

Early on in his career, playing for Jacques Martin with the Senators, Hossa said he “learned right away, pretty much, to play defense.”

Certainly, his speed and size gave him the attributes for it. But a big part of defending is commitment, and not every offensive star — no matter how tooled-up — wants to devote their efforts to that side of the puck.

The Penguins, though, saw it quickly with Hossa. Gonchar remembers watching video in which Hossa wouldn’t be in the picture as the other team carried the puck up the ice. If he was out of the frame, it stood to reason, he wasn’t going to catch up to the play.

“And next thing you know, Hossa’s coming back and he’s lifting the stick and grabbing the puck and going (the other) direction,” Gonchar said. “It’s how fast he was, but also how dedicated he was to (doing) the back checks and help people on the defensive side.”

“Man, he backchecked like a dog,” Malone said. “Like he was hounding it just as hard — if not harder, I felt like almost — backchecking. That was the one thing that stood out right away.”

“He was the kind of guy that’s just sort of a coach’s dream,” Yeo said.

That reputation was evident in the fact Hossa had appeared on at least some ballots for the Selke Trophy, awarded to the league’s top defensive forward, in three of the four seasons before the Pittsburgh trade.

And his arrival indeed had the intended boost: The Penguins stormed through the first three rounds of the playoffs, going 12-2 on a blistering run to the final.

Which makes it all the more surprising to hear Hossa say he felt the biggest turning point in his 200-foot game didn’t come until a season later, when he arrived in Detroit.

“When I started playing with Pavel Datsyuk,” Hossa said.

Hossa considered Datsyuk the best 200-foot player in the league at the time, and while there is ample evidence that Hossa was already climbing those ranks himself, playing on a line with Datsyuk created an opportunity for Hossa to take his own game to an even higher level.

The two would play a simple game of keep-away after practices. Inside a circle, each player would have one puck. The object of the game was to protect your puck, with control inside the circle, while stealing the opponent’s puck.

“No one’s better than Pavel Datsyuk at that,” former Detroit teammate Dan Cleary said. “I’ve done it with Pavel many times. It’s exhausting. You have no idea. Like I’d be just dying, and Pav wouldn’t even be breaking a sweat. But Hoss would go over and play, and those guys, I mean — their strength on their stick is just unbelievable.”

“I didn’t get invited into that game,” Draper joked. “But it was unreal.”

Hossa said he picked up little tricks from Datsyuk and started “loving it, to (steal) the pucks from behind.” In that way, perhaps Detroit can be seen as a sort of graduate school for a player who was already among the sport’s best but who hadn’t found his way to that elusive Cup.

By playing with players such as Draper and Nicklas Lidstrom, as well as Datsyuk and fellow 200-foot force Henrik Zetterberg, Hossa was getting an intimate look at how the sport’s other greats found that extra edge. He took pride in the shape he got himself into in order to play the full ice at his high level.

“I learned it from them: It’s not enough,” Hossa said. “You still have to work even harder. In that case, I was able to skate back and forth as hard as possible, so I was in great shape to backcheck as hard, stealing the pucks and get new chances to (play) offense. And Pavel showed me how to do it. I learned quite a bit from them. I already had some touch before, but that year really helped me, and that year (gave) me so much to bring to the young Chicago team.”

(Jerome Miron / USA Today)

Chicago is where Hossa really began to cement his legacy as one of the game’s best two-way forwards, creating offense from his defensive instincts and impacting defense with his world-class offense.

“He played the game with such a great conscience on the defensive side of things that it led to so many opportunities for him offensively,” Yeo said. “And then his skill would just take over from there.”

It’s a give-and-take relationship with and without the puck that few wingers commanded more than Hossa, exemplified perfectly at a time when “puck-possession hockey” was at the forefront of the game’s lexicon. That really began with Datsyuk’s Red Wings, and Hossa brought that knowledge over to a soon-to-be dynastic Blackhawks team.

There’s a very good reason why Hossa was quick to credit Datsyuk and company for molding his defensive game, and it bears out in the numbers.

One of Datsyuk’s most coveted skills was his ability to take pucks away from opponents, seemingly at will. Big or small, fast or strong — it didn’t matter. After Hossa left the Wings in 2009, Datsyuk led all players with 4.4 takeaways per 60 minutes (at five-on-five) over the remainder of his career, nearly one full takeaway better than the next-best player. Only eight other players averaged three takeaways per 60; Hossa was one of them at 3.1 per 60, ranking seventh in the league and tied for first among wingers with Jamie Benn. In the two seasons before that, Hossa was at 2.2 per 60, ranking 71st.

That manifested into tangible on-ice results.

Year after year, the Blackhawks limited chances with Hossa on the ice, and they were even better at making sure those pucks didn’t end up in the back of the net. In Hossa’s eight seasons in Chicago, the team averaged roughly 58 percent of the goals and 55 percent of the expected goals, with the difference coming defensively. During his tenure, opponents mustered only 1.89 goals per 60 with Hossa on the ice, the eighth-best mark over that timespan.

Along with Datsyuk, Hossa was part of an elite group of forwards who were on the ice for fewer than two goals against per 60, joining 18 other forwards that included elite contemporaries such as Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar and Joe Pavelski. Generally speaking, it’s highly unlikely that any winger could influence goals against, but Hossa may just be the exception to the rule for his era.

For eight straight seasons, the Blackhawks allowed fewer goals against with Hossa on the ice, even if the expected goals against didn’t quite line up. Overall, Chicago shaved 0.25 goals against per 60 with Hossa on the ice, the 10th-best mark in the league, although none of the nine players above him played tough minutes like Hossa did.

Hossa had that talent in him but his Chicago years unleashed his full potential.

“Just great two-way player,” Patrick Kane said. “Created a lot of momentum just from — maybe sometimes he would backcheck, strip a guy and then it was like, ‘OK, Hossa’s really going to go tonight, he’s flying again.’ But he did that all the time, and it was special to watch.”

All of that was while adding incredible offense with 415 points over 534 games as a member of the Blackhawks. Chicago made the playoffs every season with Hossa and has made it back only once since his retirement (the bubble year, when the league let 24 teams into an expanded postseason while Chicago was actually in last place in the Central Division).

“I think it shows how important he was, just the success we had with him, and kind of what’s transpired without him over the last little while,” Kane said.

It’s no coincidence that Chicago’s defensive numbers in particular were a root cause of the team’s downfall, declining aggressively in the years since Hossa’s retirement. In 2016-17, his final season, the Blackhawks allowed 1.99 goals against per 60 at five-on-five and 2.36 expected goals against per 60. The following season, those numbers jumped to 2.63 and 2.62 respectively, both of which were right around the league’s bottom five. The team’s tumultuous defensive performance has only become worse since.

Chicago’s defensive downward spiral is not all because of Hossa — there were other big changes made that summer — but his absence has been felt the largest relative to the team’s contending window.

His impact on the team, at both ends of the ice, was massive.

That’s why, in addition to coming up just short in previous years, Hossa was the perfect choice for Toews to pass the Cup to first in 2010. And it’s a big reason Hossa and the Blackhawks kept on winning it in the years that followed.

“He’s all-world,” Cleary said. “Just all-world person. Just blessed with talent, and he worked his a– off.”

— The Athletic’s Scott Powers contributed to this story.

(Top photo: Philip MacCallum / Getty Images)

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