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New All-Star Game format promises over the top 3-on-3 pond hockey

The 2016 NHL All-Star Game in Nashville will consist of three 20-minute 3-on-3 games in a tournament format.

When it comes to the NHL’s All-Star Game, change is good.

Well, at least in the minds of the people who get paid to pay attention to this sort of thing. I’m not sure the average fan who plops down on the couch is all that concerned whether the nearly annual mash-up features East vs. West, North America vs. the World, or the free-for-all fantasy draft. The hook for them has always been the chance to see players briefly set aside their deeply held animosity for a one-game experiment in forced chemistry.

That said, I suspect the latest concept might raise a few eyebrows.

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According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie, who first reported the story on Tuesday night, the traditional event scheduled for January 31, 2016 in Nashville will be replaced by a three-game mini tournament in which the stars of the league’s four divisions will face off in a three-on-three challenge. Each division will be represented by nine skaters (six forwards, three defensemen) and two goalies. The two Eastern Conference teams will play one 20-minute contest, as will the two Western sides, the order of to be determined by the previous night's skills competition. The winners will then meet in a 20-minute finale with cash and valuable prizes on the line.

It’s a fresh take, alright, one that capitalizes on an early-season success story and is sure to garner plenty of advance press. That already makes it a win for the league.

Just don't expect it to produce great hockey.

The reason the three-on-three gimmick has worked so well in the regular season is that there’s a very real and very important point on the line and there are only five minutes on the board to claim it. That crucial point, and that ticking clock, lend urgency to every stride, every pass, every shot.

Take those away and what will you be left with?

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Best guess? A bunch of guys over-passing the puck looking for lay-ups against a half-hearted defense and goaltenders who are just trying not to get hurt. In other words, it’ll mirror the excitement of regulation three-on-three about as closely as the old All-Star formats did playoff hockey, no matter how much prize money is at stake.

That doesn’t mean this is a bad idea. The promise of an NBA-style fast-break pace might attract viewers who otherwise would had passed on the event and it will definitely catch the eye of channel flippers. And even if it makes the typical pond hockey game look structured and intense by comparison, there’s no reason to get butt hurt over the All-Star format, no matter what shape it takes. Remember, this event is staged not to showcase the NHL’s top talent but to wine and dine the league’s sponsors and partners. As far as they’re concerned, any buzz that's generated on the ice is pure gravy.

So, what might it look like? Here's our best guess based on the first 20 games. At a glance, it looks like the smart money will be on the Central and the Metro.

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