Every so often the NHL comes across a player whose greatness isn't fully appreciated until his playing days are finished.
A current example: Chicago Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa.
We all know (or should know) he is a fantastic player. But sometimes I wonder if we really understand or appreciate just how fantastic he is. Maybe in a couple of years when he's either retired, or is on his last legs as an NHL player and on some sort of Teemu Selanne-like farewell tour, he might start to develop more of a cult-like following.
But for now? When he's still playing at an exceptionally high level as a core player on a Stanley Cup contender? It still feels like we might be missing (and have missed) something really special.
Consistently one of the best
Since Hossa became a full-time player during the 1998 season, only one player (Jarome Iginla) has scored more goals than Hossa's 464, while only three players (Iginla, Joe Thornton and Jaromir Jagr) have more points. He's averaged nearly a point per game in the lowest-scoring era in NHL history (his 0.92 average is in the top 20 among players who have appeared in at least 500 games over that stretch), and has done so while being one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL.
He is by every objective or subjective measure one of the best players of his generation. But do we recognize that?
Despite all of his accomplishments and contributions to winning teams, and all of the numbers he's compiled, he's never finished higher than 10th in Hart Trophy voting in any one season. He finished 10th two different times -- once with Ottawa and once with Atlanta -- as well as 18th once and 24th twice. And that's it as far as MVP voting.
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Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact that not only has he never won or been a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forward, he's only ever finished higher than 12th in the voting one time. He has received just six first-place votes and only 24 top-three votes over the previous 14 years. (Voting for this year's award hasn't been revealed yet, but we do know that he is once again not a finalist.)
Why has this happened? Why has he been so consistently overlooked not only for individual hardware, but also when it comes to simply being known as one of the very best players in the NHL?
All of the ingredients are there for him to be known as that type of player. This isn't a situation like Patrice Bergeron in Boston where his value is hidden beneath the box score numbers and you have to dig down deeper to find why he's so good and so important.
With Hossa, it should be obvious.
He scores a ton. He is responsible in all three zones on the ice and is as complete a two-way player as there is in the NHL. He's done it while playing high-profile games in major hockey markets, appearing in four of the past six Stanley Cup Finals with three different teams (Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago -- teams that are always highlighted on national television). And he oftentimes does it with style, making the type of plays that bring you out of your seat.
Here's a play he made in the first round of this year's playoffs against the St. Louis Blues. It perfectly captures everything about his game. Force a turnover and steal the puck? Done. Make a defender look silly with a one-on-one move? Done. Create not one, but two scoring chances out of it? Done.
The only thing that prevented him from scoring and completing what would have been one of the best plays of the first round was Ryan Miller making a couple of point-blank saves, contributing to some of the poor shooting luck Hossa experienced early in that series.
Always playing second fiddle
I think there are two things that have worked against Hossa over the years, especially as his career has hit its peak and he started winning Stanley Cups.
First is that he has consistently joined teams that already had superstars who were easily identifiable as that team's franchise player. In Atlanta, he was playing on a team that had Ilya Kovalchuk scoring 50 goals every year. In Pittsburgh, where he only spent a few months, he joined a team that had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. In Detroit, it was Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk. In Chicago, it's Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
It's easy to get lost in the shuffle when you're playing second fiddle to Crosby or Toews.
Twilight of an Enforcer
Second -- and I think this is what really hurts him when it comes to award voting, and especially the Selke voting -- is that he plays on the wing. All things being equal, guys who play down the middle are always going to win out over guys who play on the outside. If you take a look back over past award results, it's not hard to see voters usually look down the middle of the ice. Unless you're a 50-goal scoring winger (Alex Ovechkin, Corey Perry that one year) or the occasional goalie who finishes as a runner-up, you're probably not getting much attention when it comes to MVP voting.
And unless you're a center, you can completely forget about winning the Selke or even being in the discussion for it. You have to go back to Jere Lehtinen in 2002-03 (his third time winning) to find the last time a non-center won the award.
You have to go all the way back to Jay Pandolfo in 2006-07 to find the last time a pure winger was even a finalist (Henrik Zetterberg was a finalist in 2007-08 when he spent time at wing and center).
And this is what truly makes Hossa a unique monster in the NHL.
There have been quite a few exceptional two-way players in the NHL over the years who have scored at an elite level and excelled defensively -- Toews, Datsyuk, Thornton, and perhaps most recently, Anze Kopitar.
But what do those guys all have in common? They're centers.
Wingers who score like Hossa don't typically defend the way he does. You're not going to see them storming back on the backcheck and ripping the puck away from an opponent, starting the play in the opposite direction. The wingers who do defend like that aren't usually capable of scoring 30-40 goals or putting up 80 points in a season.
Through eight playoff games, the Blackhawks once again look like a team that can make a serious run at the Stanley Cup, and Hossa is, just as he was in 2010 and 2013, one of the guys helping to drive them there. After his three-point game in Chicago's Game 2 win on Sunday, he's averaging a point per game in the playoffs, has already put 35 shots on goal, and is still an absolute thief on the defensive side of the puck.
He's a rare, magical player, and one worth paying more attention to while he's still playing at the top of his game.