Trouble with the All-Star Game (and Spezza’s idea to help)

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Nothing to see here. Just a lil dancing.

1. I vividly remember Leo Komarov lonely sitting at his pod at the 2016 All-Star Media Day in Nashville, waiting for a crowd to form and questions that barely arrived. A couple local reporters and the Maple Leafs’ own film crew dutifully spoke with him. But the swarms went elsewhere, and he left the room early.

I write this not to shame Uncle Leo. He’s a helluva character, a beauty quote, and was a terrific role player in his prime. What he was not, however, is an NHL all-star. But it didn’t matter that the Leafs were in blatant tank mode that season.

In Gary Bettman’s circus of parity, every team must send an all-star rep.

In 2022, we have Arizona’s Clayton Keller (tied for 75th in scoring) awarded his second appearance and Montreal’s Nick Suzuki (tied for 159th) awarded his first.

Again, nothing against these talented athletes. But Keller’s all-star debut was made during (checks notes) a 14-goal season. Nazem Kadri has 48 points in 31 games, but it’s his fault he plays for a good team.

In other words, we get where Nathan MacKinnon is coming from.

“It’s silly,” MacKinnon said, twice. “It’s silly. I don’t think every team should send a guy. I think it’s a silly rule that we have. It’s an all-star game; it’s not a participation game. Naz is [fifth] in scoring in the NHL, and he’s got to get voted in still. So, I don’t think that’s right.”

MacKinnon speaks with firsthand knowledge of both perspectives, deserving and undeserving. He debuted at the 2017 all-star game in L.A. during a career-worst 16-goal campaign because, hey, the crappy Avs had to be included.

“You know, I look back when we came last, I went, and I had a poor season. So, I knew I shouldn’t have been there. A lot of guys should have been over me,” the Central Division captain went on.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t mean a ton. It’s an all-star game. It’s for fun. It obviously gets hyped up and things like that. But yeah, I mean, we should have five, six guys going from our team.”

Anaheim Calder candidate and author of the season’s most creative goal Trevor Zegras won’t be going, which is a whiff.

Why not?

Well, Nick Kypreos revealed on Real Kyper and Bourne Friday that Calgary didn’t wish to send Jacob Markstrom, and the Pacific Division needed a worthy goalie, so John Gibson got the nod. Troy Terry is a worthy Last Men In candidate for the Ducks, but the puzzle pieced Zegras out.

Unless…

With Dylan Larkin representing rebuilding Detroit over Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider, zero rookies were invited.

In addition to Kadri, three other top-10 scorers — Steven Stamkos, Brad Marchand, Mikko Rantanen — were left off the initial rosters.

Metropolitan captain Alex Ovechkin, who has a history of skipping the event, has already qualified that his attendance will be health-dependent: “Obviously most important thing I have to get healthy, and we’ll see from there.”

In Toronto, cases could be made for William Nylander and Morgan Rielly, in addition to Last Men In nominee John Tavares.

“It’s a crazy thing that Mo hasn’t gone [to an all-star game] with how many years he’s had just producing and doing great things and helping our team win,” Mitch Marner says. “That’s a guy that really deserves to be in that opportunity, in that game.

“It’s tough. I mean, there’s not a lot of spots [and] obviously you gotta fill all the teams in there,” Marner goes on. “We’re a team that when people do get announced to it, we’re super happy for one another and we don’t really dwell on it too long.

“No one cares that much.”

It’s silly! It doesn’t mean a ton! No one cares that much! … So many all-star slogans for the NHL to choose from.

2. Jason Spezza still recalls the pins-and-needles excitement of his first all-star weekend, when he skated on a line with Ovechkin and Martin St. Louis.

“Too much gets talked about the quality of the game.” Spezza speaks from a place of wisdom. “It’s all about what your expectations are.

“If you’re expecting Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, you’re looking in the wrong place. But if you’re looking to see your favourite players yucking it up and getting to know each other, then it’s a great thing for kids.”

A self-confessed hockey nerd, Spezza has an idea that might improve the Skills Competition.

Though it would require some The Batchelor-level secrecy to make sure no one knew the winners in advance, Spezza suggests pre-taping a made-for-TV skill special. Cut out the contest’s floods and low points and mix the highlights — Hardest Shot, Fastest Skater, et al — with some pre-shot backstories of the competitors.

Heck, invite specialists who aren’t necessarily all-stars but have a booming slapper or are quick on their feet. In basketball, not every three-point shooter or slam-dunk artist plays in the game.

“The NBA does a good job of that,” Spezza says.

3. Cale Makar, 23, has been an NHL standout since before his rookie year even started, so it’s a little surprising that this will be his first all-star appearance.

Project his 16 goals through 29 games played over a full 82, and he’s scoring at a 45-goal pace. Simply remarkable.

“He’s just electric. He’s a dynamic skater and up there with anyone in the league,” former Avalanche Alexander Kerfoot says. “Just the plays that he makes game in, game out, he can beat guys on his own and make something happen out of nothing.”

Only three times has a defenceman hit the 40-goal mark, and two of them are Paul Coffey. The other is Bobby Orr.

The last time Coffey accomplished the feat, NHL teams scored an average of 3.97 goals per game. Makar is taking a run at it with scoring down to 3.03.

“He can really shoot the puck,” Morgan Rielly says. “What he’s able to do at his age and just how he plays a game is very impressive. He’s got a lot of confidence. I mean, he’s one of the best players in the league.”

4. The greatest penalty kill percentage in a single season is 89.6 per cent, by the notoriously stingy 2011-12 New Jersey Devils.

Well, the 2021-22 Carolina Hurricanes (90.1 per cent after 34 games played) and Pittsburgh Penguins (89.9 per cent after 36 games) are both hunting down the record. It’s early, but this is some fine 4-on-5 work.

All-star goaltending by Frederik Andersen and Tristan Jarry surely helps, but let’s give some love to the assistant coaches here.

Todd Reirden is in his second season (of his second tour) overseeing Pittsburgh’s D and is proof that an ousted head coach can still make meaningful impact in a more specified role.

Long-serving stay-at-home Hurricanes blueliner Tim Gleason took the PK reins from Dean Chynoweth (now with Toronto), getting promoted to the bench after heading up the club’s defencemen development since 2018.

A couple of under-discussed coaches doing fine work in an under-discussed area of the game.

5. The youngest of Annika and Nicklas Lidstrom’s four hockey-playing sons, Lucas, turns 19 this year.

“Pretty soon he’ll be out of the house too,” Lidstrom said upon being named the Detroit Red Wings’ VP of hockey operations this week. (For Lucas’s sake, we hope he didn’t learn of his imminent eviction during Dad’s Zoom call with reporters.)

“I always wanted one day to get back into it again.”

A soon-to-be empty-nester, Lidstrom says he’s eager to get his feet wet as a hockey executive, learn how the organization works “and see where that leads me.”

This is a coup for Lidstrom’s friend/boss Steve Yzerman. He believes Hall of Fame players that dive into management do so because they have a love for the grind of it all.

“I try to hire really good people. I try to hire the best hockey minds, guys who have a great work ethic and a passion for the job,” said Yzerman, content to allow Lidstrom to do the work from home in Sweden.

Lidstrom won’t hesitate to provide tips to Detroit’s D-men and try to make them better players. (Hello, Moritz Seider.) He wants to learn their personalities. And when Detroit is ready to turn the corner on its rebuild, imagine the impact of a UFA defenceman getting a recruiting call from Lidstrom.

“I’m really excited to join the team again — the organization, I should say,” Lidstrom clarified.

“We can do the team thing, too, if you want to talk about that,” Yzerman responded.

6. Not so fast, Maple Leafs fans tempted to turn away from Team USA’s Olympic experience now that Matthews won’t serve as No. 1 centre.

Two highly touted Leafs prospects, Nick Abruzzese and Matthews Knies, will rep an intriguing American squad that leans heavily toward youth.

Harvard alum and current Leaf Kerfoot spent a decent amount of time skating with and talking to Crimson captain Abruzzese in the summer.

“He’s a really, really good hockey player. He’s got dynamic skills. Super good with the puck. He’s got an elite brain,” Kerfoot says, “and he’s a really good offensive player.

“The other thing you notice is just his hunger. He wants to get better. He wants to be the best player on the ice every night. He’s competitive, and he’s a really hard worker.”

Abruzzese, 22, has racked up 65 points through his first 45 games for the Ivy League school.

7. Tuukka Rask taking a pro-rated $1 million contract for the cap-strapped Bruins after making $6.5 million last season is a heckuva discount.

“In some ways, Tuukka’s too honest,” Boston GM Don Sweeney admitted. “He’s just a guy that wants to go back and play hockey. He committed to the rehab part of it and the process, which is not an easy thing. He could have just faded off.

“I applauded Tuukka and Markus [Lehto, his agent]. They’re not blind to the salary cap challenges we all face. I appreciate them working with us in that regard.

“[The Rask signing] hopefully puts us in a really strong position organizationally without necessarily changing the cap dynamic. You realize we were probably $60,000 within the cap the other night just to field our lineup.”

So far, so good. Rask delivered a nail-biting 3-2 victory over Philadelphia Thursday, his first action in 218 days.

All three goals were scored by David Pastrnak, who promised Rask a hat trick pre-game.

“It felt like I was home,” Rask said when all the hugs were over.

Games in hand matter. The Bruins rank 12th overall in points percentage (.647). We could still see them taking a run up the Atlantic standings.

8. Auston Matthews agreed, for the second time this season, to be mic’d up for TNT’s national broadcast Wednesday in Arizona.

“I used to not be super comfortable doing it, and then I just got used to it. Doesn’t really bother me,” Matthews explains.

The in-game sounds add a much-welcome layer of entertainment for a sport played within the confines of glass.

“Honestly, for the most part, I forget I’m mic’d up,” Matthews says. “I just focus on playing hockey and helping my team and trying to do what I can do out there to help us win and let the PR team take care of that stuff.”

9. Quote of the Week.

“I used to hate him. Now I love him.” — Zach Bogosian on Corey Perry.

10. Less than 24 hours after the Hockey Diversity Alliance launched its #TapeOutHate campaign last Saturday, Budweiser Canada announced that the rolls of anti-racism hockey tape sold out.

“We want to keep this topic relevant. This is not an issue that is just in the past. It still happens today,” says HDA co-founder Wayne Simmonds. “We want to continue these tough conversations, to where we can get to a point to where we don’t even have to talk about this anymore.”

The well-produced video features some of the actual racist messages NHLers of colour have received on their phones. Is the language offensive? Of course. But the Alliance felt it necessary to include — so fans know the truth.

“It hits hard sometimes. Not sometimes. All the time,” Simmonds says. “If you go back to your Twitter, Instagram or even text messages — somebody might randomly find your number, and these things happen. It happens way too often. And we just want people to know that it’s just not us crying, ‘Poor us.’ This is something that is extremely important to us. It’s still happening today. And we want to make sure the next generation of BIPOC hockey players know they have people that are standing with them.

“And if we can make it to this level, they can definitely make it to this level as well.”

Fans noticed that Simmonds, Kadri, Anthony Duclair and Matt Dumba didn’t wear their respective team sweaters in the spot.

“We don’t really have an ongoing relationship with the NHL, and I think that’s why we weren’t allowed to use our NHL equipment, logos, and things of that manner,” Simmonds says.

“The most important thing is just getting this campaign out in front of the hockey world’s eyes, for everyone to realize what actually is going on behind the scenes. So, it’s unfortunate we don’t have a working relationship with the NHL, but it is what it is. And we’re going to continue to forge forward and try to make a difference in our game.”

11. Jack Eichel says he felt “like a kid at Christmas” joining his Vegas Golden Knights mates on-ice this week.

He’ll take his time getting his timing back and conditioning up to par, but Eichel has been torching defenders in his red, no-contact practice sweater so often that Alex Pietrangelo jokingly complained that it wasn’t fair that they can’t hit him.

“I’m not in a rush right now,” says Eichel, who wants to feel comfortable before entering the lineup.

Thing is, he used to be in a rush for Beijing.

The NHL’s pullout from the Olympics has replaced some urgency with caution here.

“Like a lot of players, I was very frustrated. I’m not saying that I would have been back and healthy and ready to compete at the Olympics — but I’m also not saying that I wouldn’t have been,” Eichel said. “Definitely frustrated with the decision.”

So smooth was the artificial disk replacement surgery that the centremen went out to dinner with his parents later that night after going under the knife.

Yes, Eichel had a long conversation about the procedure with Chicago’s Tyler Johnson, who underwent the same ADR surgery shortly afterward.

12. Time flies. Penguins don’t.

I was blown away by this Pittsburgh record, which speaks so much to this trio’s success but also management’s commitment to keeping a championship engine intact.

One would guess the ’70s Canadiens, ’80s Islanders or Oilers, ’90s Red Wings or ’00s Devils might have three guys that stuck together longer.

Although there’s no guarantee this threesome makes it to Season 17 — with Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang both pending UFAs — this is a mind-blowing accomplishment in the salary cap era.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.