When you're over 30 and still in the National Hockey League, people — understandably — begin to check their watches. The wheels come off for everyone at some point, even Nicklas Lidstrom, and the modern game is very much a young man's.
Today's NHL is based on speed, if we're to believe the swirling fetishism surrounding how Fast and Big the last four teams in the league were. This is a copycat league, as anyone will happily tell you as though it's the first time you've ever heard such analysis, so the remaining 26 will look to cultivate big, fast rosters — because players like that are super-easy to find — in the near future.
But skating speed isn't necessarily the be-all, end-all in this league. Hasn't been and won't be. Matt Lombardi was fast, but he was never great. Darren Helm is fast, and he's like the seventh-best forward on his own team. Speed alone doesn't make you great. Nor, obviously, does size; how many 6-foot-5 guys have washed out of this league having only made it on the premise that they are large humans?
What really matters, you'll quickly find, is that being big-ish and fast-ish is usually good enough when you have the most important thing shared by the two teams left, and the two they defeated: Skill. Stan Bowman and Steve Yzerman have done masterful jobs amassing skilled players who happen to have some approximation of what could be called “size.” The average player for Chicago is about 6-foot-1, and for Tampa it's less than an inch taller than that, but those rank 21st and 12th in the league, respectively, while their weights come in at less than 197 and 200 pounds per player, ranking 29th and 21st. These are not “big” teams through the lineup.
Marian Hossa is not, himself, necessarily a big player (he's 6-1 but 200-plus pounds), nor can he, at age 36, move as quickly as he one did. He still gets up and down the ice pretty easily, mind you, and he an still push people around to great effect, but where his game really shines — and continues to shine even at his advanced age — is that he simply appears to be fast.
Hossa has a strong ability to change speeds, receive and discard the puck quickly, and know exactly where to be at all times. Despite his age, he's fourth on the team in points, and tied for third in goals, in these playoffs, and that comes not because of any single characteristic of his physical gifts, but because age has seemingly affected him very little. In other words, the difference between a 27-year-old Marian Hossa and a 36-year-old Marian Hossa are shockingly small, not necessarily in terms of personal production.
Obviously, a big difference between his early days and now is that, in addition to being nearly a decade older, he is no longer playing with Ilya Kovalchuk and Marc Savard, as he was in Atlanta. No surprise that three guys in their early- to mid-20s with that much talent actually made up one of the more dominant lines in the early days of the New NHL. Not that Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad aren't very good linemates, of course, but, a) The NHL was a lot more free-flowing back then, and b) Toews has never put up numbers like Kovalchuk did in his heyday with the Thrashers. Few have.
But that Hossa remains anywhere near that range — and has remained more or less consistent since he turned 30 — is a small miracle. Research from Eric Tulsky shows that the average NHL forward begins to decline in terms of production around 24 or 25, by about 10 percent until he turns 29, but drops off a cliff once he hits 30. Hossa certainly saw the former of these drop-offs as he moved from his mid-20s, but really hasn't experienced any such change after that point.
What makes Hossa amazing, though, is that the way he and his linemates dominate opponents remains almost unchanged.
That's a big jumble of lines, but as you can see he remains well above 50 percent (and continues to be a dominant force even among his teammates, on one of the best teams in the league) in terms of goals, shot attempts, and high-quality scoring chances alike. These numbers are nothing short of amazing.
And again, that comes with the caveat that playing with Jonathan Toews helps buoy a lot of percentages, but Toews could really say the same thing about Hossa. This is a player with a demonstrated ability to control things in the defensive end, over a period of years, that few players in this era have ever displayed. The fact that he leads the team in possession despite getting some fairly difficult assignments — as anyone does when playing with Toews — should tell you everything. This is some of the toughest usage of any heavily relied-upon forward in the playoffs (those with at least 250 minutes at 5-on-5), and the only other guys in the neighborhood are Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
That he can even keep up is kind of amazing. That the numbers suggest he's driving things is jaw-dropping.
And this is a guy who, earlier in the playoffs, was said to be struggling. He didn't have a goal until Game 4 of the Minnesota series. But since that game, he's gone 4-2-6 in eight games against arguably the second-best team in the West for the entirety of the season, and was held off the scoresheet just twice. He also had an important goal in each of Chicago's elimination games.
You wonder how much of this apparent agelessness relates to how he's been deployed since he turned 30. At no point since he began his time with Detroit in 2008-09 has he averaged 20 minutes a night for the whole season, and he's only done it — just barely — in the last two years in the playoffs because of Chicago's seeming insistence on going to multiple overtimes (20:25 last year, when the team played 102:42 minutes of OT, and 20:10 this season thanks to 151:22 more).
We all laughed when he got signed to that cap-circumventing deal that will pay him until he's 41 years old. He's still only halfway through it. But hell, he can probably be a top-six player until he's 38, right? The wheels can, obviously, fall off at any point, but he's changed so little since his 30th birthday that such a rapid decline might be considered more shocking than not.
Time catches up with everyone, it's true. And while Hossa isn't that big, nor is he all that fast at this point in his career, he and his coaches may just be crafty enough to outrun it for at least another year or three. Isn't that something?