By Allan Muir
The KHL held its annual All-Star Game this weekend and it was spectacular, replete with muscle-bound goalies and sharp-shooting fish-men and, probably, a bare-chested Vladimir Putin scoring the winning goal on a breakaway in overtime. Seems like the players selected, including Ilya Kovalchuk, Max Afinogenov and Jonathan Cheechoo(?!!), as well as the fans had a goofy good time.
That's something that NHL fans will miss out on this season. There's only room for one break in the schedule and this being an Olympic year, well, it's already spoken for. Besides, there's only so much glitz (and event planning staff) to go around, and with six outdoor games this season, both are stretched thin as it is.
So we'll have to wait until 2015 when the Blue Jackets are set to host the next real NHL All-Star Game in scenic Columbus. But that doesn't mean we can't take a moment to recognize the players who deserve the honor of an ASG berth this year.
Who makes the cut? Well, the basic rules apply. That means three goalies, and every team gets at least one representative, so fans get whole new round of snubs to complain about.
Here are the rosters for our 2014 What If? NHL All-Star Game:
Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning
Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres
Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
Montreal's Carey Price may wind up starting for Team Canada in Sochi, but he'd get All-Star weekend off. So would Steve Mason, who has been the MVP of a stunning turnaround in Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury, who leads the league in wins. Instead, one spot has to go to Bishop, who has been a rock for a Tampa Bay team that's stayed in contention despite the loss of superstar forward Steven Stamkos. Rask had a couple of rough starts during the past week, but he's been the league's most consistent keeper this season. And Miller, well, he's been spectacular, playing Vezina Trophy-caliber hockey behind a team that is approaching historic levels of crapitude. Impossible to keep any of those three off.
Brian Campbell, Florida Panthers
Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
Ryan McDonagh, New York Rangers
Matt Niskanen, Pittsburgh Penguins
P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens
No explanation needed for Karlsson, Chara and Subban. Campbell and McDonagh get the nod as their team's lone representatives. Both have had strong, if not overwhelming, seasons, with Campbell keying Florida's offense from the back end and McDonagh providing the Rangers with solid two-way play. The only eye-catching choice here is Niskanen, who edged out Andrei Markov and Niklas Kronwall for the sixth spot. Nisky gets the nod for being the player who has delivered above and beyond in a way that no other has this season.
Considered trade bait at the beginning of the season, Niskanen took on more responsibilities as Pittsburgh's defense was decimated by injury until he was eventually elevated to the role of de facto No. 1. He's handled it pretty well too, running up a league-leading plus-23 rating and taking a flock of rookie blueliners under his wing while facing top lines as the Pens rose to the peak of the Eastern Conference. He may never reach these heights again, but he deserves this moment in the sun.
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings
Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers
Jaromir Jagr, New Jersey Devils
Ryan Johansen, Columbus Blue Jackets
Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes
Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning
John Tavares, New York Islanders
Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings
Not a lot of surprises here. Giroux would be in as Philly's representative after scoring 19 points in 14 December games. Jagr, New Jersey's obvious choice, would have made it 13 ASG appearances for his career. Skinner is scoring at a rate of .61 goals per game, trailing only the Caps' Ovechkin (.74) and Alex Steen (.69) of the Blues. Johansen reps Columbus as a reward for his breakthrough season (career-high 33 points) and Martin St. Louis gets the nod for being all-around awesome, even if Steve Yzerman doesn't agree.
It would have been nice to fit in guys like Chris Kunitz (you know, the Olympian), Nicklas Backstrom (top-10 scorer and third in the league with 97 points), Kyle Okposo (nearly a point-per-game pace during a career-best season) and James Neal (whose 1.33 PPG average is second to only Crosby), but mandatory team representation made their inclusions impossible.
Josh Harding, Minnesota Wild
Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks
Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks
Harding has been the story of the season in the NHL, putting up chart-topping numbers while battling MS. Hiller's stats are middle of the pack, except that one that matters most: wins. He leads the conference with 23 victories and has recorded 14 straight wins, the second-longest streak in NHL history. Luongo put aside the mental strain of a year's worth of trade talk to become the one player that the Canucks could rely on this season.
Tough to leave off Semyon Varlamov--the refinements he made to his game were critical to Colorado's stunning start and he's rebounded nicely from his legal issues, going 13 straight games without a regulation loss--but with Matt Duchene representing the Avs, we'll go with the trio of goalies who weren't involved in an embarrassing scandal.
Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames
Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Phoenix Coyotes
Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild
Shea Weber, Nashville Predators
Too many good choices in the West, where five Olympians made the cut, but others like Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwemeester of St. Louis, and Anaheim's Cam Fowler don't get a sniff. Tough to leave off the trio of Blues, but Doughty gets the nod as a legitimate Norris candidate with some dazzling fancystats (second among all D with a 58.5 percent Corsi). Giordano deserves his spot as Calgary's rep. He's been terrific when healthy, providing leadership during his first season as team captain along with making a healthy contribution to the team's (admittedly) challenged offense.
Matt Duchene, Colorado Avalanche
Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks
Taylor Hall, Edmonton Oilers
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings
Bryan Little, Winnipeg Jets
Corey Perry, Anaheim Ducks
Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars
Patrick Sharp, Chicago Blackhawks
Alexander Steen, St. Louis Blues
Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks
Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
Three Blackhawks earn an invite, including Sharp, who is on target to set new personal bests for goals, assists and points. A fourth--Marian Hossa--deserved serious consideration. Steen, who went back to practice on Monday after missing a dozen games with a concussion, is in here after scoring 20 goals in his first 24 games, the second fastest pace in franchise history. Tyler Seguin has thrived as Dallas' first line center, becoming one of the game's most thrilling players since his move to the middle. Little is quietly having a successful season despite the dysfunction of the Jets, while Hall, who should be in the mix as an injury replacement for Team Canada, has been Edmonton's most consistently effective forward. It's tough to leave off 20-goal men Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau, but Jumbo Joe's league-leading assists total earns him San Jose's sole spot on this squad.
Agree? Disagree? Keep it to yourself. Just kiddin' …