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NHL mailbag: making the All-Star Game and regular season count

The NHL announced on Nov. 23 that it had canceled its 2013 All-Star Game scheduled for Jan. 27 in Columbus. The move will save a few days on the schedule when or if the season starts. With NHL players still unconfirmed for, but likely to play in, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the ASG won't likely return until early in 2015. Apart from some members of the Blue Jackets organization and local businesses around Nationwide Arena that could use the income from All-Star Weekend, will anybody actually miss it?

Has the event lost all meaning?

True, all-star games in other sports have their shortcomings. Nobody blitzes in the Pro Bowl. Nobody plays defense in the NBA's edition. Major League Baseball's starters are done by the fifth inning, and ace pitchers throw short stints before hitting the showers. But the NHL's game has increasingly become a more distant cousin of its regular or postseason fare, and less recognizable as hockey every year.

There is a de facto no-hit understanding among players that renders the contest a glorified skills competition, and don't we already have one of those the weekend? Just watch Zdeno Chara peel away from making a bodycheck, something he would never do in a meaningful game, and you realize just how contrived the ASG is.

And less than 24 hours after the league celebrates its cannonballers with a hardest-shot contest -- Chara reference No. 2 -- players only take slappers in the game if nobody is standing between them and the goaltender. Both the hitting and firing restraints are part of an understanding among players that nobody should ever get hurt in an All-Star Game. Okay, but then what happens to the game?

Just as the NHL has been trying to inject more offense into games that count, look at the recent ASG scores: In the five games that have been played since obstruction rules were toughened after the 2004-05 lockout, the two teams have produced an average of 20.2 goals in each contest. Compare that to the scores of the first games after expansion in 1967: 3-3, 4-1, 2-1, 3-2.

Hey, those look like hockey games.

Consider the 57th edition of the game -- the one played in 2009 at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Nearly everything about the game was as good as it could be. First, it was played in a great hockey city that was celebrating (and celebrating and celebrating) the centennial of the Canadlens' founding. Habs legends were present en masse throughout the weekend. Jean Beliveau announced the starting lineups. The game, though high-scoring, was actually competitive, with the East beating the West, 12-11, in a shootout. The game's MVP was home-team favorite Alexei Kovalev. Yet the Match Des Etoiles still felt, well, it was a fun carnival, but still more carnival than hockey game.

The NHL has done many things to spice up the All-Star Game, adding different skills events in order to expand the weekend on the order of the Slam-Dunk Contest or Home-Run Derby. It has matched European teams against North Americans and chosen up sides they way kids do in a schoolyard. Goalies wear microphones and give TV interviews in the middle of play.

It is really a game for fans, but do fans care? Some players, most notably Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, and Teemu Selanne have asked out and, in some cases, taken heat from the league for doing so. Should the game be scrapped? (We vote no.) Is it fine the way it is? (Again...no.) Are there other ways to make it more interesting and meaningful? What if -- taking a page from baseball -- East played West and the winner earned home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Final? (We like it.)

Do you have other suggestions?

And now, some reader mail:

The question is, has the expansion of the percentage of teams that reach the playoffs made the entire regular season in the NHL and NBA a de facto preseason with regular season prices? From a fan's point of view, I'm not sure the NHL has lost anything yet. -- Larry Littlefield, Brooklyn, NY

You have hit on something here. How much buzz do you usually associate with the first half of an NHL season? If only eight or 12 teams made the playoffs, playing poorly during the first couple of months would up the suspense because it would be more likely to jeopardize the postseason chances of some contenders. Instead, with eight teams per conference getting in, well, more can sneak into that final eight and then take off. Think about the Kings last season or the Flyers in 2009-10. The Canucks have two Presidents' Trophies, and how much do those matter? In Canada, the interest level in the regular season is higher, but In the U.S., the opening face-off might as well take place at the Winter Classic.

Why would the NHL and the NHLPA not go to binding arbitration? At some point it seems that they will just find that middle ground all of a sudden and the fans will be wondering why they couldn't do that in the first place. -- Dave Brown, Shediac, NB

Going to arbitration is a good thought, but at this point it's wishful thinking. Ideally, you could split the difference between the two sides' positions to come to whatever agreement they will ultimately reach, but each has to answer to a constituent base that doesn't appear ready to cave in just yet. Because there is more than one big, contentious issue to settle, you probably won't see arbitration until the numbers in question are close enough that they can be split in half. (The NHLPA recently said both sides were close in the amount proposed to honor existing contracts -- only $182 million; the NHL thinks otherwise and insists they are still far apart.) The pressure on both sides -- time, losing another season and squandering substantial revenues -- may be the only things that force an agreement although three Federal mediators have now been assigned to the talks. Hopefully, they can get things moving.

In regard to future Hall of Fame selections, I would certainly think that Eric Lindros' international career mixed with his NHL stats will sneak him in. He also had a major impact on how the game was played. There were a lot of plug defensemen that made the NHL because they were 6'3 and 220-plus pounds and could handle the new breed of monster forwards that Lindros led. I do think it will be a close call on his Hall call. -- Alex, Oshawa

Brendan Shanahan, Jeremy Roenick, Pat Verbeek and Keith Tkachuk also fall into a similar category. Granted I'm not sure that many struck as much fear into a defense as Lindros did, because he could cut through the middle and belt you into the concession stands without losing the puck. He just wasn't at the top of his game for a very long time. Like Peter Forsberg, Lindros' style of play led to his injury woes, but Shanahan managed to avoid career threatening injuries and his longevity will be one of his selling points. Lindros, however, didn't win a Stanley Cup and his behind-the-scenes effect on teams was checkered. I still don't think you'll see him in the Hall.

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