The 59th NHL All-Star Game is a few weeks away, to be held Jan. 29, at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa. Earlier this month the NHL finalized its online All-Star voting, where fans were able to vote for six automatic entries into the game. The league has abandoned its East v. West format for a fantasy draft, so the six players voted in by fans aren’t “starters,” per se, but they are in the game.
If you’re a Washington Capitals (or Philadelphia Flyers, Toronto Maple Leafs, or San Jose Sharks) fan, you should be very unhappy with the denizens of Canada’s capital right now.
Of the six automatic spots in the All-Star game, four went to members of the Ottawa Senators – forwards Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek, and Jason Spezza, plus defenseman Erik Karlsson – and the other two went to their Northeast Division rivals: defenseman Dion Phaneuf of the Toronto Maple Leafs and goalie Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins.
That leaves the selection of the final 21 forwards (position doesn’t matter), 10 defensemen, and 5 goalies up to the NHL’s Hockey Operations department. Out of those 36 spots, they need to fit at least one player from the remaining 27 teams,* meaning an over-representation of decent players on mediocre teams and an under-representation of actual stars.
*Technically, each team will be represented by at least one player from either the All-Star Game or a pool of 12 rookies who participate in just the Skills Competition, but I’m working from the assumption that the league would like to avoid that. In 2011 three teams were represented only by rookies: the New York Islanders, Florida Panthers, and Edmonton Oilers, who initially had one All-Star and two rookies before Alex Hemsky and Jordan Eberle dropped out.
The league will announce the final All-Star ballot on Thursday morning. I’ve taken it upon myself to do some prognostication, and it seems to me that the Capitals are going to be among the majority of teams who only get one entry into the big game.
More surprising than Washington only getting one All-Star is who that player is: not Alexander Ovechkin.
Nicklas Backstrom is the odds-on favorite to be the Caps’ one and only All-Star, and he’ll be joined by Dmitry Orlov as part of the Skills Competition. Even then, Orlov’s participation will be more of a recognition that there are very few rookie defensemen in the league than anything else.
Ovechkin, especially if he continues his hot streak as of late, will be at the top of the injury replacement list, but there’s just no room for an offense-only player who’s outside the top 40 in points and barely in the top 20 in goals.*
*All statistics updated as of Monday night’s games
Who does make the team? Let’s give a guess…
Daniel Alfredsson (F, OTT), Milan Michalek (F, OTT), Jason Spezza (F, OTT), Erik Karlsson (D, OTT) : This quartet isn’t quite as bad as it seems. Michalek was probably going to get in the game on the strength of his scoring outbust, and Karlsson is unquestionably an All-Star defender in the league. Jason Spezza is in the top 15 in assists and points, which makes his selection defensible. Daniel Alfredsson is having a good season but it really a sentimental pick. Both Spezza and Alfredsson are stealing spots from someone else.
Dion Phaneuf (D, TOR) was also probably going to be selected, and this just solidifies a solid season for the veteran.
Tim Thomas (G, BOS) was almost supplanted by James Reimer in the fan voting, which would have really screwed things up, but the fans got it right by voting for the best goalie in the world right now.
These players are having undeniably outstanding seasons and their statistical dominance over their peers in offensive categories or in the net makes them deserving inclusions. It should be no surprise that many of these players are clustered among the league’s top teams.
Claude Giroux (F, PHI) seemed to be sidelined by a concussion suffered in December, but only missed a handful of games before returning at full strength and keeping up his scoring tear.
Daniel Sedin (F, VAN), Henrik Sedin (F, VAN)
Phil Kessel (F, TOR) has 24 goals, 24 assists, and is second in the league behind Henrik Sedin in points, suggesting he won’t be the last player picked in the All-Star fantasy draft for two years running.
Steven Stamkos (F, TB)
Marian Gaborik (F, NYR)
Jonathan Toews (F, CHI)
James Neal (F, PIT) is a huge surprise, but his 21 goals make it impossible to deny his All-Star worthiness. It seemed he would be out for a while after getting injured last week against the Stars, but word is that his injury isn’t as bad as it seems.
Joffrey Lupul (F, TOR) is the single biggest surprise in Toronto this season. Everyone knew Kessel was an offensive stud, while Lupul’s emergence as an scoring and passing threat was unheralded. Midway through the season, Lupul has already topped his career high in assists.
Pavel Datsyuk (F, DET)
Jimmy Howard (G, DET)
Brian Elliott (G, STL) supplanted Jaroslav Halak as starter in St. Louis, and his brilliant play (1.70 GAA, .938 Sv%) is one of the reasons the Blues are in the playoff hunt.
Henrik Lundqvist (G, NYR)
Jonathan Quick (G, LA)
These players deserve All-Star consideration in their own right, and have built up so much respect in the league that there’s no way they wouldn’t make the squad.
Nicklas Lidstrom (D, DET)
Zdeno Chara (D, BOS)
Teemu Selanne (F, ANA) apparently never ages. Leading a team in points at age 41 is reason for an All-Star invite in its own right.
Jarome Iginla (F, CGY) may as well be the only player on the Calgary Flames, because he’s the only one who gets any attention (except for when Mikka Kiprusoff is good). He just hit the 500-goal milestone, which is also reason for inclusion.
BEST PLAYER ON A BAD TEAM
Here is where things get tricky. Multiple locks from Vancouver, Detroit, the Rangers, and Toronto means that there are now only 18 spots from players from 16 teams. I’m starting from the assumption that teams at least a few points out of playoff position not currently in playoff position will definitely only get one player in the game. Note that Stamkos, Selanne, and Iginla also fall under this category.
A few of these spots are up for grabs, i.e. one of two players, who play the same position, will make the All-Star team. What’s more important than the actual player is the position he plays.
The sole representatives for these squads will be:
Eric Staal/Jeff Skinner (F, CAR); Even though Staal is having a horrendous season, in terms of offensive production and defensive play, he’ll be representing the Hurricanes, because the NHL loves the Staal family. Skinner is the other option, as he’s second in the team in points despite missing over a quarter of the season to date with a concussion.
Erik Cole/Tomas Plekanec (F, MON)
Jason Pominville (F, BUF) is playing lights-out while helming the revitalized Sabres, and will be the only representative for his team even though Tomas Vanek probably deserves it as well.
Rick Nash (F, CLB) is the best-known player on a team that doesn’t deserve representation.
Jordan Eberle (F, EDM)
Mark Streit (D, NYI) is having a terrible season, actually, but he’s the Isles’ captain and is making a comeback after missing all of last season because of injury. The other options from New York are the underperforming John Tavares and the streaky Matt Moulson.
BEST PLAYERS ON DECENT TEAMS
Nicklas Backstrom (F, WAS) leads the Caps in assists and points, lead the team in goals between Jason Chimera’s outburst and Ovechkin’s recent resurgence, and plays a pretty solid defensive game too. He’s tied for 12th in the league in scoring, with Spezza, and tied with Pominville for 8th in assists.
Mikko Koivu (F, MIN)
Zach Parise (F, NJD) has made a great comeback after last season’s injury, and that plus his defensive prowess gives him the nod over Ilya Kovalchuk.
Dustin Byfulgien (D, WPG) is actually not playing as well as Evander Kane. However, Byfuglien plays defense, which means he gets the nod over his young teammate.
Shea Weber (D, NSH)
Keith Yandle (D, PHX)
Sheldon Souray (D, DAL) is a highly debatable pick. His teammate Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn deserve the honor more, but they’re also forwards, which is already a bloated position.
Dan Boyle (D, SJ) also finds his way onto the team thanks to the numbers game at forward, which keeps Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, and Patrick Marleau from consideration.
Jason Garrison/Brian Campbell (D, FLA) leads defensemen in goals, and is the sort of rags-to-riches story people love. Campbell has played to his previous levels under friendly GM Dale Tallon. The two are a deadly pair on the power play, and only one will make the game.
Kyle Quincey (D, COL) is a token representative for the Avs.
WILD CARD SPOTS
All that said, there are two spots for players whose teams are already represented by one player: one forward and one goalie. Here are my highly subjective picks:
Evgeni Malkin (F, PIT) is the actual best player on the Penguins right now, and it would be impossible to keep him and Ovechkin both out of the game.
Antti Niemi (G, SJ) has impressive in backstopping the Sharks to the top of the loaded Pacific Division. He’s got the best all-around game of the remaining candidates, like Pekka Rinne and Marc-Andre Fleury.
Holy cow, there are a lot of good players not on the above list. What about deserving players like forwards Patrice Bergeron, Loui Eriksson, Scott Hartnell, Pavel Datsyuk, Joe Thornton, Patrick Sharp, Evander Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, and yes, Alex Ovechkin; defensemen like Duncan Keith, Alexander Edler, Nicklas Kronwall, Michael Del Zotto, and Dennis Wideman; and goalies like Marc-Andre Fleury, Pekka Rinne and Roberto Luongo?
Over the past five All-Star games, an average of about 4 players per game dropped out due to injury or other concerns. That means that other deserving players will get the chance to be All-Stars even though they weren’t initially identified as such.
Bergeron, Hartnell, and Thornton, as top players on the best teams in the league, will be the first injury replacements, and Eriksson or Jamie Benn will be next in line. If he continues his strong play under Dale Hunter, Dennis Wideman could very well find his way into the game as a replacement too.
There are some wildcards too. Hockey Ops could decide to give a spot to someone like P.K. Subban over Cole or Plekanec. The real tragedy is in Carolina: as undeserving as any of the forwards are on that team, the defensemen are even less so. The league could also decide that Colorado or Columbus only get a rookie spot.
A year ago, it would seem ludicrous to suggest that the NHL would have an All-Star game without the presence of both Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby (who’s missed so many games that his only shot to be an All-Star this season was the fan vote), but injury and underperformance has led us to that point. If Ovechkin is in the All-Star Game, it’s on name recognition alone.
For what it’s worth, here’s a stab at the rookie participants. It’s possible that Johansen, Landeskog, and Neiderreiter are their teams’ only representatives in Ottawa.
Luke Adam (F, BUF), Sean Couturier (F, PHI), Marc-Andre Gragnani (D, BUF), Adam Henrique (F, NJD), Cody Hodgson (F, VAN), Ryan Johansen (F, CBJ), Gabriel Landeskog (F, COL), Adam Larsson (D, NJD), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (F, EDM), Nino Neiderreiter (F, NYI), Dimitry Orlov (D, WAS), Matt Read (F, PHI), Craig Smith (F, NSH)
The complete list of projected All-Stars:
Forward: Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek, Jason Spezza, Claude Giroux, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Phil Kessel, Steven Stamkos, Marian Gaborik, Jonathan Toews, Joffrey Lupul, Pavel Datsyuk, James Neal, Nicklas Backstrom, Teemu Selanne, Jarome Iginla, Eric Staal, Erik Cole, Jason Pominville, Rick Nash, Jordan Eberle, Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Evgeni Malkin
Defense: Erik Karlsson, Dion Phaneuf, Nicklas Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara, Mark Streit, Shea Weber, Keith Yandle, Sheldon Souray, Dan Boyle, Jason Garrison, Dustin Byfuglien, Kyle Quincey
Goalie: Tim Thomas, Jimmy Howard, Brian Elliott, Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick, Antti Niemi