The NHL is hardly alone in staging a perfectly unwatchable All-Star shindig, though some in the Boston market found it a little more palatable this year when favorite son David Pastrnak walked off with the MVP trophy following the NHL’s 3-on-3 tournament last Saturday night in St. Louis.
Then again, does anyone really want to be named MVP of a 3-on-3 tournament, even if most of the biggest names in the hockey universe are part of it? What was it that Groucho Marx said about not wanting to join a club that would have him as a member?
All-Star Weekend was not without its moments, the best of which was the women’s 3-on-3 tourney, USA vs. Canada, a 20-minute chuckwagon race wedged into the Friday night men’s skills competition. It was the only event where I was left wanting more.
The women were a joy to watch, in part because of the genuine, infectious joy on their faces, but in larger part because they have serious skill and they’re committed to winning whatever their share of the sports/entertainment biz might be out there to claim.
It’s a very crowded, competitive, and expensive market, which will make for long odds for the women, unless they can convince the NHL to underwrite a separate league, similar to the NBA-WNBA template.
The NHL’s Lords of the Boards could be convinced if the whole enterprise netted out each year at something around zero cost, but that’s not what the financial dynamics are telling them to date. And we’re now 22 years after the women’s game really got on the map with the USA’s gold medal win over Canada at the Nagano Olympics. It has been a long haul and the women have yet to win over enough consumers to turn their hopes and efforts into a bona fide livelihood.
The men, meanwhile, remain the All-Star headliners, which continues to make both parties, league and rank-and-file, guilty by association. Hello, Groucho.
For anyone versed in the game, which presumably would be those interested in attending or watching an All-Star Game, it’s understood that the men’s game (as opposed to the women’s) is framed by hitting. The more aggressive, the better.
That’s just not the All-Star Game, and that is totally understandable, given the physical wear and tear of an 82-game season and the prospect of perhaps another 28 in an even more physical postseason run. No one wants to be delivering any hits, big or small, at the All-Star Game.
There is also the perennial bugaboo that always has some of the stars uninterested in attending. Two of the big names this year were the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin, now in his 15th NHL season, and the Bruins’ Tuukka Rask (11 years). Both ducked out, noting the standard reasons: 1. wear and tear on their aging bodies; 2. time they’d prefer to spend with their families. No. 3 went unstated: How much hockey can one man stand?
That’s one of the main conundrums here: The older they get, and the bigger their names, many established NHL stars don’t want to be part of the show. Yes, money factors in that. Ovechkin and Rask each have earned millions. They don’t need the added bit of fame and whatever chump change they might pocket for their weekend away with the boys, particularly at around game 50-something on the schedule.
It’s difficult to deny these guys their desire to rest and reconnect with their families. That said, the right thing for all of them would be to attend. Their careers are relatively short. One more weekend committed to their craft isn’t that much of an ask. Also, they are part of a union (NHLPA) that forever espouses its devotion to help grow the game (i.e. help produce more hockey-related revenue, HRR). That mantra is tough to swallow when some of their best can’t wait to race off to the Caribbean at the All-Star break.
There is no one big fix to all of this, but the whole All-Star enterprise would be a far better fit if it were positioned at the start of the NHL calendar rather than jammed into the middle of a hectic, grueling season.
Placed at the start of the season, over 2-3 days at the end of September, it likely would get near 100 percent turnout from the appointed stars. That time of year is the end of training camp, which is mandatory for players to attend. They’d be faced with remaining home and likely suiting up for a meaningless preseason game, or ditching that for two or three days of light lifting with their union buds at the All-Star Game.
In September, none of the stars could claim their bodies were worn out or minds exhausted. As for missing time with their families, well, they’d be doing that anyway in training camp.
From the league side, the event would still be the giant sponsorship dollar grab that has become its raison d’etre. The franchise that landed it (the Blues this year; Panthers in 2021) would still fill its building, lavish in the prestige of staging the event, and not a single club in the Original 31 would have to fret over the prospects of winter weather dropping havoc upon the party.
Granted, it would be a stickier fit for US television, which likes to have the NHL programming spotted in the off week of the NFL playoffs. Late September would have the NHL All-Star Game competing for eyeballs with the NFL and college football, and Major League Baseball pennant races. However, it’s not like the TV numbers around the current All-Star Weekend are winning big shares in the US or Canada. Something small just becomes a smidge smaller.
Balloting would have to be held late in the prior season, as the playoffs approached. There is the chance that some of the players will change teams over the summer, but that too would be too small a number to discount the idea of trying to come up with a better overall event.
Dropped into the September schedule, the entire weekend would be positioned as a celebration of a new season about to dawn. All the stars gathered in one place at that time of year would bring a spotlight to the league, one that it knows is difficult for a good number of its member teams to attract for the first 4-6 weeks of the regular season.
As for 3-on-3 hockey, that’s the same in September as it is in January. Game on and cover your eyes.
Dozen players closing in on 100
Projecting numbers can be a fool’s exercise (hand up here, of course), particularly because of the ever-present injury factor. But a dozen NHLers, including Bruins Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, are in the hunt for 100-point seasons.
Marchand, who carried a 24-41—65 line into Friday night’s faceoff in Winnipeg, reached three digits for the first time last season (36 goals, 100 points). Pastrnak, who went into the All-Star break as the league’s top goal scorer (37), entered the weekend with 70 points and should shatter the career-high mark of 81 he put up last season.
The NHL has not had more than seven players reach the 100-point mark in a season since 1995-96, which was the last time a dozen reached the mark. In the two years immediately following the 2004-05 lockout, seven players each season hit the mark, including Joe Thornton, Sidney Crosby, and Dany Heatley as repeaters.
In the 12 seasons since, the average has been slightly under two 100-point scorers per year, though the number swelled to a half-dozen last season, led by Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov (128). Alex Ovechkin, again the league’s top goal scorer (51) last season, finished out of the running with 89 points. Ovechkin, a four-time member of the century club, surprisingly hasn’t hit the mark since posting 109 points in 2009-10.
Headed into weekend play, these were the 12 players with a chance of getting there by season’s end:
1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton, 77 points; 1. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton, 77; 3. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado, 72; 4. Pastrnak, Boston, 70; 5. Artemi Panarin, NY Rangers, 68; 6. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida, 65; 6. Marchand, Boston, 65; 8. Jack Eichel, Buffalo, 64; 9. Patrick Kane, Chicago, 63; 10. John Carlson, Washington, 60; 10. Auston Matthews, Toronto, 60; 12. Kucherov, Tampa Bay, 58.
Carlson, with a substantial scoring lead over the rest of the league’s blue liners, would be the first NHL defenseman to register 100 points since ex-Boston College star Brian Leetch (22-80—102) did it with the Rangers in 1991-92.
Phil Esposito (126), Bobby Hull (107), and Gordie Howe (103) registered the league’s first 100-point seasons in 1968-69.
The record for most players to reach 100 points was set in 1992-93, when 21 delivered triple figures.
Mario Lemieux (Pittsburgh, 160), Pat LaFontaine (Buffalo, 148), and Adam Oates (Boston, 142) led the way. Joe Juneau (102) was the only other Bruin to make the list.
Dealing Krejci may be best play
General manager Don Sweeney has a little more than three weeks to shore up the Bruins’ ever-inconsistent second line that has David Krejci at center and Jake DeBrusk at left wing. The No. 2 line has been in and out of the clouds long enough to be dubbed the Bermuda Triangle Trio.
Two years ago, Dealin’ Don made the bold play to bring in Rick Nash for the fix at No. 2 right wing. A concussion early after his arrival from Broadway took the big winger out of the mix and locked in his GPS for retirement.
Last year, Sweeney picked up Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle as candidates, only to see those two work best as effective, productive partners on a third line.
Krejci is now 33 years old and has only one year remaining on a deal that carries a team-high cap hit of $7.25 million. So, while Sweeney factors how best to shape that line, he must also consider whether he wants to keep Krejci on board beyond the termination date of his deal at the end of 2020-21.
Truth is, even with that beefy cap hit, Krejci stands as one of Sweeney’s most tradeable assets. Before the season began, Krejci was contractually obligated to hand over a list of 15 teams he would agree to go to in trade. So he’s in serious play if Sweeney wants him there, and especially so if Sweeney believes he’ll need that $7.25 million this summer to make all the roster parts fit for 2020-21.
That’s the most flexibility Sweeney has in the veteran core group of forwards that includes Patrice Bergeron (a three-team trade list starting next season) and Brad Marchand (no-move clause through 2021-22). Sweeney also is free to move Tuukka Rask, like Krejci, to any of 15 teams, be it now or next season. But Rask is a franchise goaltender with no one ready to push him off the job. We learned that for certain recently when Jaroslav Halak’s work was just OK when he filled in for the concussed Rask.
Keep in mind, Sweeney also has a similar, even more acute issue, with Torey Krug, who is but five months away from unrestricted free agency.
If Sweeney opts to extend Krejci’s deal, it won’t be for more than the center’s current $7.25 million hit. Krug, now at $5.25 million, could bring as much as $9 million in the open market. Between those two, Krug is the more essential keep. He is five years younger than Krejci, quarterbacks the power play, and leads the overall back-end offense. It could take a portion of Krejci’s paycheck to keep Krug in Boston.
Moving Krejci now would bump Coyle, a new long-term deal in hand beginning next season, into the No. 2 center spot. Par Lindholm would be the obvious first choice to slot in at No. 3 center, unless Sweeney and Co. were convinced that Jack Studnicka (14-16—30 at AHL Providence) is ready for The Show.
Studnicka, the No. 53 pick in the 2017 draft, will turn 21 on Feb. 18. The very same age Krejci was when he was promoted full time from Providence in 2007-08.
The tragic helicopter crash last Sunday that claimed the lives of Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna, along with seven others, has no parallels. However, in the summer of 1951, Maple Leafs fans lost one of their favorites, 24-year-old Bill Barilko, in a plane crash in northern Quebec. The accident came just weeks after he potted the overtime winner vs. Montreal to clinch the Stanley Cup title — one of four the Leafs won with Barilko on their backline. It wasn’t until June 1962, almost 11 years later, that a pilot in a low-flying helicopter spotted the wreckage in the rough Quebec terrain. After 1951, it wasn’t until the spring of 1962, weeks before Barilko’s crash site was finally discovered, that the Leafs next won the Cup . . . The Sabres again were a nice story for the first month of the new season, all the more intriguing this time around with good guy Ralph Krueger hired as bench boss. But they’ve face-planted again and are targeted for a ninth consecutive playoff DNQ. Painful. Johansson, Coyle’s productive partner in last year’s playoffs, signed with Buffalo in the offseason for two years, $9 million. Dollar-wise, moving Krejci out (likely to a team in the West) would allow the Bruins to take on Johansson’s money and reunite the 29-year-old with Coyle . . . Similar to Boston’s situation with Krug, the Blues are faced with losing franchise defenseman Alex Pietrangelo on July 1. He hit the All-Star break with a 13-27—40 line, the eighth time in his career he has reached 40 points. On the books for $6.5 million, he won’t land the $11 million that the Kings forked over to extend Drew Doughty. But Pietrangelo (No. 4) and Doughty (No. 2) were selected in the same draft (2008). Both have Cups. The Blues or someone else likely will have to approach $10 million a year to get Pietrangelo under contract . . . Brett Hull, enjoying his second life as the official Party Animal of St. Louis, was among the well-known Blues alums woven into the All-Star skills competition — along with the likes of Al MacInnis and Bernie Federko. Faithful reader/puckologist Allan Steele reminds us that Hull scored 50 goals in college (Minnesota-Duluth, 1985-86), also in the AHL (Moncton, 1986-87), and then five times with the Blues. He did it last with the Blues as a 29-year-old. Alex Ovechkin did it again last year, his eighth time, at age 33 . . . Wonderful tribute last Monday at the Garden, where Steve Nazro was inducted into the Beanpot Hall of Fame. “One thing you’ll all remember about your college careers,” Nazro told the assembled players from Boston University, Boston College, Harvard, and Northeastern, “is where you were the first two Mondays in February.” The tournament’s MVP trophy is also named after Nazro, who grew up in Arlington and recently retired from the Garden after a half-century of service, most of it spent as the director of events . . . Travel this past week landed your faithful puck chronicler in Winnipeg, home province of ex-Bruins coach and assistant GM Tom Johnson. A true son of Manitoba, Johnson never carried a coat, able to withstand the subzero temps of his hometown with the slightest of windbreakers. “All you need, kid,” the late Johnson often would tell young beat writers, lighting a cigar as he’d head out the hotel door. “You need to get out more.” TJ, by the way, was a rookie Canadiens defenseman in the spring of 1951 when Barilko knocked the Cup winner by Habs goaltender Gerry McNeil.