Marian Hossa’s role changing as age creeps up on him

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Marian Hossa had a career-low 13 goals last season. (AP Photo)

TORONTO — At some point in the near future, perhaps as early as Oct. 12 when the NHL season opens, Marian Hossa will score the 500th goal of his career, likely punctuating it with his usual wide-armed, lean-back, double-fist-pump. It’ll be a big moment for Hossa. A proud one.

And a long, long, long overdue one.

Goal No. 500 seemed inevitable last season for the Blackhawks winger, but a puzzling drop in his shooting percentage, combined with a late-season injury, left him stuck on 499 all summer. He scored a career-low 13 goals last season, despite playing heavy minutes on the top line alongside Jonathan Toews and despite plenty of chances. The puck simply wouldn’t go in. And Hossa still doesn’t understand why.

“I’m not sure why I was not as effective as before,” Hossa said before leading Team Europe into the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto. “If I knew exactly, I’d be really working on that. But I don’t have an answer for that.”

While the scoring touch that made him one of the league’s top snipers early in his career eluded him, the defensive prowess that has made him one of the league’s most revered players later in his career never has. That’s why he found himself relegated to a checking role on the third line, alongside Marcus Kruger, in the playoffs. And that’s why Joel Quenneville is strongly considering keeping him there to start the 2016-17 campaign, despite the disconcerting dearth of NHL-ready wingers for Toews.

At least one guy’s pretty stoked about it.

“Playing with a guy like that would be unbelievable,” Kruger said. “He’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen.”

Hossa’s not the type to make a scene or bristle at an assignment. If Quenneville puts him on the third line, he’ll play on the third line. But entering his 18th NHL season at age 37, Hossa still feels he’s a top-line talent, and that the goals will come. And he thinks the long offseason — after three straight short summers — benefitted him as much as anybody.

“Of course, you want to play with Jonny, one of the best players in the league,” Hossa said. “Me and Jonny had a bunch of years together; most of the time we play together. But I’m open to anything. If that’s beneficial for the team, I can play with Krugs some games. I’m sure that’s what’s going to happen.”

The question is, has age finally caught up with Hossa? The way he tracks down opposing forwards on the backcheck suggests there’s a lot of life left in his legs. But after posting a stellar 14.7 shooting percentage during the lockout season in 2013, he dropped to 12.4 in 2013-14, 8.9 in 2014-15, and an alarming 6.8 last season, barely half his career average. He still attempted nearly five shots a game last season, down a bit from previous seasons, but hardly terrible. He just couldn’t score.

And even a veteran such as Hossa can start to question himself. He said a slow start might have had him “squeezing the stick a little harder.” But he also allowed for the more unpleasant possibility.

“It could also be the age,” he said. “There are lots of guys who [have] great numbers, and when they hit a certain [age], the numbers slowly go down. Everybody’s game is going to decline at some point. But as long as I can keep skating with the young guys, I think I can bring lots to the team, especially defensively or penalty-killing. Obviously, talking to Coach Q, he wants to use me more in that department.”

Hossa still has five seasons left on his massive contract, one of those front-loaded deals that helped precipitate the 2012-13 lockout. While his cap hit remains $5.275 million under the new system, his actual salary drops from $7.9 million to $4 million this season. Then it drops to a mere $1 million for the final four years of the deal.

But money isn’t what drives Hossa at this point. He’s still having fun, and he know he can still play at a high level. As long as that’s the case, he’s not planning on retiring any time soon.

“To me, it’s not about [money],” he said. “I’m in a great organization, the perfect spot. My family’s happy there. If I can play for a long time, I’d love to. If I see the game change and I can’t keep up with the younger guys, or there’s injuries that are going to stop me, or older age, then I’ll consider it. Maybe.”

A few goals early on wouldn’t hurt. But another scoring drought won’t rattle the venerable veteran, who long ago eschewed offense for defense, and the individual for the collective.

“It’s not like I’m going to try to score 40 goals or win a scoring title in this league,” he said. “My final goal, I’m trying to win one more Cup.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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