Marian Hossa’s absence looms large over Blackhawks’ trying season

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Marian Hossa had 525 goals and 629 assists in 1,309 regular-season games. (Getty Images)

Imagine how different the Blackhawks might look right now with an effective, proven finisher on Jonathan Toews’ right wing. Imagine how much better the power play might be with a big, strong body in front. Imagine how much improved their team defense might be with a Selke Trophy-caliber forward on the ice for 18 minutes a night.

Imagine how different this season might be if Marian Hossa were still in uniform.

“I mean, he’s Marian Hossa, right?” forward Ryan Hartman said. “He’s a future Hall of Famer and he’s scored over 500 goals in his career. He’s a guy that has the puck the majority of the game. He’s an outstanding player. Obviously, it’s good to have a guy like that in your lineup.”

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The impact of Hossa’s de facto retirement (he’s sitting out this season with a skin condition, but nobody expects him to return next season at age 39) is immeasurable. Even at his age, he was one of the top two-way forwards in the league.

He scored 26 goals last season; only Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat are on such a pace this season. He was virtually impossible to knock off the puck in the offensive zone. He could chase down players half his age on the back-check, a safety net for forwards, defensemen and goalies alike. He killed penalties and played on the power play. And the ripple effect of removing him from the lineup is felt on every line.

So while Hossa’s departure was met with skepticism around the hockey world — the Hawks were in cap hell, Hossa’s actual salary on his back-diving contract dropped to $1 million this season, and it all seemed very convenient for him to go on long-term injured reserve — his absence is felt far more than his cap hit ever was. Besides, all the Hawks really did with that cap space was sign defenseman Cody Franson, who’s now in Rockford.

Cynicism aside about the nature of Hossa’s (very real) condition, the Hawks are indisputably worse without him. For all the talk of underperforming stars, a defense in transition, and Corey Crawford’s head injury, Hossa’s absence has been as big a factor as any other in the Hawks’ season-long struggles.

“He pretty much puts up almost 30 goals a year, even if he’s on your third line,” said Toews, his longtime linemate. “He was quiet in the sense that I was getting the recognition of being a Selke nominee, but a lot of that I owed to him being such a great two-way forward. It’s kind of funny that missing a guy like Marian Hossa isn’t talked about as often.”

Opponents certainly notice the difference. Hossa is universally admired around the league, but he also was universally dreaded. He was a nightmare to play against.

“He’s very big and has a ton of skill, and that’s usually very hard to find,” Kings center Anze Kopitar said. “He made me look silly a couple of times. But he’s a great all-around player. I don’t think he got enough credit for his defensive play, either.”

Said Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo: “One of the best guys at both ends of the ice for a long, long time. He’s one of the guys you circle on the roster knowing he’s going to be a pain to play against. Big loss for them, and I’m sure they feel it.”

Hossa is still around, still living in Chicago, and he pops by the United Center once in a while to say hi. He just turned 39 on Jan. 12, but he’s still in remarkable shape — “like a Greek god,” Kris Versteeg once said. He’s one of the most pleasant people in hockey, and the Hawks are always happy to see him.

But his presence also serves as a painful reminder of what might have been.

“You can’t say enough about that guy, really,” said Brandon Saad, who largely modeled his game after Hossa after playing on his line as a rookie. “You might overlook it, but everything he brings on and off the ice, as a veteran who’s been through it all, he’s definitely missed.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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