Hutch's Hockey: All-Star Shame

Hutch's Hockey: All-Star Shame

Well, it's that time of the year again. All-Star talk is rampant, and this year, the NHL has dramatically fumbled one of its biggest events. 

What I like this year: the fantasy draft format returns. That's the best thing the league has done with the All-Star Game. I also like the smaller skills competition -- last year's was bloated, though the 2022 edition was pretty entertaining. That can be hit or miss. 

The negatives far outweigh the positives. For one, even while abandoning divisional alignment, there's still only four defensemen among the initial selections. The league has never made it more clear than this year -- if you're a blueliner below the elite tier, make your vacation plans early. 

Then there's the league-picked players. I have long campaigned against fan votes, but somehow that wasn't the most egregious part of the selection process. The league's pick of players was a who's who of name recognition rather than anything close to a merit-based approach. Some notable players didn't want to attend, and I like that the league is not pushing them as hard this year -- the one-game suspension for skipping it is up there among the dumbest rules in sports. There's no need to go against players' wishes this year with all the talent available. 

The biggest problem is that we're still trying to shoehorn in one player from every team, which is something the league wants, and then having a wide-open fan vote. No surprise the Maple Leafs will have four players there -- the game's in Toronto. The Canucks getting five players isn't a shock either given their season, but the fan vote results completely fly in the face of the desire to have as many fanbases interested in the game as possible. 

The best solution that I could offer is having the All-Star rosters be selected by the same writers that vote on the awards. If you want each chapter to pick one player from each team, that's fine. Letting the writers pick would likely lead to less out-of-date selections and more balance in positions. I also support expanding the rosters -- there's no reason to stick with 44 All-Stars when there's so much talent in the league. Even going up to 56 or 60 players would help. The more players that are there, the less ice time they need to take during the actual event, which reduces risk for everyone involved. 

While I usually do a snubs column, I'll skip that this year and focus on my midseason awards instead. I'll get the tough one out of the way early: Nikita Kucherov is my first-half favorite for the Hart. This really gets to the valuable part of the Most Valuable Player. Where would the Lightning be without Kucherov? He's the league's leading scorer with 72 points through 43 contests. Brayden Point is the next closest Bolt with 44 points. This is likely the award with the most movement potential in the second half. Artemi Panarin has been just as integral to the Rangers, while Nathan MacKinnon and David Pastrnak are also enjoying great seasons with enough potential to make the scoring race interesting. This just looks like a different level for Kucherov. 

Quinn Hughes isn't in my Hart conversation. Yes, he has been excellent for the Canucks. He leads all defensemen with 51 points. His overall game is the best its ever been and there's still room for him to grow. He's a for-sure Norris front-runner, and he's who I would give that award to. I don't make the Hart case for him because of Thatcher Demko, J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson all also putting together outstanding seasons to date. The Canucks get it done as a team, and Hughes deserves his credit for that, but he's not to the point of being the overall MVP. 

The Vezina at the midpoint looks like a two-horse race. The Jets' Connor Hellebuyck (21-7-3, 2.19 GAA, .924 save percentage) is my favorite this year, just like he was a year ago. He didn't win it last year -- Linus Ullmark was a worthy choice instead. This year may be the same story with a different spoiler, as Thatcher Demko (22-8-1, 2.47 GAA, .919 save percentage) also has an excellent case. Hellebuyck has the edge with recency bias, given the Jets' excellence in the last month compared to a strong but not as good run for the Canucks. I'll also listen on a case for Sergei Bobrovsky (21-10-1, 2.45 GAA, .911 save percentage). I'd written him off before the year and he's been nothing short of stellar even when the Panthers' defense was far less than full strength. The dark horse here: Joey Daccord (13-5-8, 2.29 GAA, .923 save percentage). Daccord has none of the track record of the other candidates, but he's willing the Kraken back into the playoff picture. If they stay there to the finish line, he'll likely have played a big part in it, but I don't think he'll end up with enough workload to get the end-of-season hardware. 

In the Lady Byng discussion, I keep it simple: play a lot and don't take penalties. Morgan Rielly fits the bill. He's logged 24:25 of ice time per game while piling up 34 points over 41 appearances, and his first trip to the sin bin came in Sunday's game. To do that as a defenseman is plenty impressive -- even noted good guy Jaccob Slavin has four PIM on his ledger this season. Penalties can be fickle, but Rielly has been well-behaved. 

The other Byng candidate that popped in my quick perusal of the stats page: Jake Neighbours. The second-year winger for the Blues is definitely not the prototypical picture of gentlemanly conduct -- he has 66 hits through 41 games, and he's added just 16 points, so the high-level offensive play isn't there either. Neighbours probably doesn't have much of a case for the award, assuming he continues to develop as a burgeoning power winger. Eventually, one of those physical plays will end in a penalty. 

For the Selke, we admittedly have to dive into a weak spot for my analysis. Defensive forwards are tough to evaluate -- do they get enough ice time to make a positive impact? Does it really matter? How much offense do they need to have? I don't have good answers for those questions. 

This is a tough award to pick, and it's much harder with the safety net option of Patrice Bergeron in retirement. I offer a surprising choice: Connor McDavid. He's been a possession beast -- per the NHL, he's controlling roughly 60 percent of the shot attempts when he's on the ice. He's no faceoff maestro, but he's also been credited with 39 takeaways, good for eighth in the league through Sunday. The best defense can be a great offense, and McDavid has just that. He's due for some credit beyond his stellar scoring numbers. 

In terms of more traditional defensive forwards to consider, Jordan Staal and Phillip Danault fit the bill pretty well. Danault in particular has blended offense (24 points in 39 games) with strong possession numbers. Staal is more of a true defensive center with just 13 points through 42 contests, but his possession numbers are among the best in the league, along with his most frequent linemates, Jesper Fast and Jordan Martinook. Some of that may be the Hurricanes' system, which has remained solid despite the team's other problems. In the end, I think Danault probably gets the award, though nothing is settled. 

For the Jack Adams, my pick for coach of the year is Rick Tocchet. There are Canucks peppered all throughout my midseason awards picks and conversation, and that's not a coincidence. The bench boss has not only turned a defensively suspect team into a stout one, but he's also changed the culture in Vancouver. I don't agree with everything he's done -- his handling of Andrei Kuzmenko in particular is worrying for the confidence of any depth player on the roster. Tocchet just has all the right momentum in place to get the best out of his players this year. I don't think the Canucks sweep the awards across the board in June, but Tocchet should be getting something. 

We'll keep it short this week for waiver-wire moves. I'll give you one guy for each position. 

At center, Mikael Backlund is a player to watch. There's plenty out there on his reputation as a second-half performer, and it's no surprise he's opened January with six points over seven games. The thing that's different this year is that Backlund has actually been pretty steady since November -- he has 21 points across his last 34 games after he was limited to three assists in January. With Blake Coleman having a career year, Backlund has seen some uptick as well. The Flames may look very different after the trade deadline, but these two players aren't going anywhere but up the fantasy rankings. 

Somewhat quietly, Jonathan Drouin has made his way back to the Avalanche's top-line left wing spot. He has five goals and three assists since the start of January. The Avalanche lean heavily on their top line and usually one or two extra forwards beyond that, so Drouin is firmly in the safety zone for now. Go get him -- most people that took him as a sleeper likely cut ties months ago. 

There's not just one rookie named Connor to pay attention to. With the Blackhawks' Connor Bedard (jaw) out of the lineup for a while, the rookie field has opened up a bit. The Flames' Connor Zary, a natural center, is right-wing eligible in Yahoo and worth a look after posting five points and a plus-6 rating through seven games in January. He didn't start the year in the NHL, which has reduced some of his Calder buzz, and he's not seeing top-line usage like some other rookies, but Zary has more than held his own so far. Like the aforementioned Backlund, Zary could be in line for a boost if the Flames' forward core gets thinned out at the deadline, so grab him now and ride the offense or try to flip him before the fantasy deadline. 

If you're looking to shore up your defense, Mario Ferraro is an option. He has eight assists over his last 10 games, though he's gotten on the scoresheet in just three of those contests. The risk, as with any Shark, is that they're virtually unplayable in fantasy formats that use plus-minus. Ferraro is seeing top-four minutes, so he'll be in the red heavily, but he can make up for it with a plethora of blocked shots -- he's second in the NHL with 125 blocks, trailing only Jacob Trouba

The goalie I'm looking at this week is Antti Raanta. This is less about performance and more about opportunity. Raanta is 3-0-1 while stopping 80 of 86 shots over his last four outings (three starts). With Pyotr Kochetkov (concussion) out and Frederik Andersen (blood clot) still not obviously close to a return, Raanta has a chance to stake his claim to the Hurricanes' crease. Especially with the team playing well as opposed to early in the year, this gives the Finn a chance to pile up wins, and the recent high-quality play is a bonus. 

That's all for this week. Hutch's Hockey will not run Jan. 22 due to a personal commitment for the coming week, but I hope to be back in time for the bye weeks and all the fantasy challenges they present. Best of luck this week, and remember to check out the rest of the RotoWire expert coverage for all of your needs while I'm away. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shawn Hutchinson
Shawn has covered sports independently since 2010, and joined RotoWire in 2019. In 2023, he was named FSWA Hockey Writer of the Year. Shawn serves as a contributor for hockey and baseball, and pens the "Hutch's Hockey" column. He also enjoys soccer, rooting for his hometown teams: Sounders FC and Reign FC.
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