TAMPA, Fla. — Alex Ovechkin won the hardest shot at the NHL All-Star skills competition on Saturday night. But it came with an asterisk.
Montreal’s Shea Weber, who had won the last three times, was not at this year’s event. Neither was Boston’s Zdeno Chara, who holds the record of 108.8 mph.
Nothing against Ovechkin, whose blast registered a speed of 101.3 mph, but it’s hard to suggest he has the hardest slap shot in the league when two of the best at hammering the puck are sitting at home. It’s the one remaining problem with the all-star skills competition, which tried to re-invent itself this year as a pure skills event that would once-and-for-all determine who was the best at shooting, skating and stopping the puck.
For that to happen, you sort of need the most-skilled players — regardless of whether they are actual all-stars.
That’s what the NBA does with the dunk and three-point shooting competitions at its all-star game, something that the NHL is reportedly looking into for next year’s event. Doing so would actually free up the all-stars who are often forced to compete in events that they have no business in.
Based on the fact that the NHL was reportedly having a hard time convincing players to compete against repeat winner Connor McDavid in the fastest skater competition — with good reason — chances are the players wouldn’t mind sharing the spotlight with the likes of Michael Grabner, Carl Hagelin or Mathew Barzal.
It would spare them of embarrassment. And, who knows, it could make McDavid’s reign as the fastest skater in the world even more substantial.
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Good on the NHL for incorporating three new events in this year’s skills competition, although two of the three need some refining moving forward.
The goalie save streak competition was surprisingly entertaining, with Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury wowing the crowd with a double-stacked save and a diving pokecheck. But the passing challenge, which featured ridiculously small nets, as well as the puck control relay, in which players had to pick up the puck lacrosse-style and feed it through a vertical gate, were both painful to watch when not executed perfectly.
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Keep it simple, stupid.
That was the general message commissioner Gary Bettman conveyed to on-ice officials after a pair of controversial goalie interference challenges robbed Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid of potential goals earlier this week.
While the league pulled together a group of general managers, coaches and referees on Saturday to look at how to improve its decision-making process, Bettman believes the only thing that has to change is decreasing the number of times a play is reviewed.
“Overall, the system works, but I think we’ve got to the point where everyone is overthinking the review,” said Bettman. “Don’t search it to death. The presumption should be the call on the ice was right unless you have a good reason to overturn. And you shouldn’t have to search to overturn it.”
Then again, according to Sidney Crosby, the only reason the league was even talking about goalie interference was because the controversial challenges involved high-profile players from high-profile teams.
“It happened in Toronto, and it happened in Edmonton, so you tend to look at it more,” said Crosby, who added that, in most cases, the referees are getting the call on the ice right. “If you affect a goalie’s ability to make a save, it’s ultimately not going to be a goal. I think it’s been pretty consistent.”
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Johnny Gaudreau, who won the Lady Byng Trophy as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player last year, was named the winner in the mid-season awards released by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association on Friday.
“Just try to stay out of the box. That’s the mindset I’ve had throughout my career,” said Gaudreau, whose five minor penalties were the fewest of any player ranked in the top-30 in scoring. “If I’m in the box, I’m not going to help my teams win game, so that’s something I take a lot of pride in.”
Is there a time when Gaudreau gets angry and loses his composure? “Unless I’m playing my brother in a pick-up game and he’s pissing me off,” he joked. “Every once in a while I’ll get frustrated like most players do.”
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All signs point the NHL expanding to Seattle for the 2020-21 season. But just because the league is adding another team, does not mean it is looking at expanding the playoff format.
“I don’t think we need more teams in the playoffs,” said Bettman, who added that Seattle would receive the same favourable expansion draft that Nashville did.
“I have no doubt that if there’s going to be another expansion team they’re going to insist on having the same expansion terms. I think that’s crystal clear.”
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Vegas entered the All-Star break with a 19-3-2 record and Alex Ovechkin thinks it’s more because of the arena than the city: “It’s not a regular rink,” said the Washington Capitals captain. “You get like into a nightclub. It’s like a party. Everyone’s dancing. Are you at a hockey game or a pool party?”
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Is there a chance Vegas could come crashing down to earth in the second-half of the season? Don’t bet on it, said P.K. Subban. “I think they’re going to be a team that’s going to be there come Stanley Cup playoffs,” the Nashville Predators defenceman.
Bettman agreed: “We were hoping the Golden Knights would be playing meaningful games into March of their first season. Based on their first 48 games, it may be reasonable to think that they’ll be playing meaningful games into March and beyond.”
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It was announced on Saturday that San Jose would host the 2019 All-Star Game, continuing a trend of having the annual winter event in a warmer climate city (Nashville hosted in 2016, followed by Los Angeles and Tampa Bay).
That makes sense. If you want players to attend, you cannot have them heading to Ottawa or Columbus at the end of January.
NHL All-Star Skills Competition winners
Winner: Connor McDavid, Edmonton, one lap in 13.454 seconds
Winner: Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis, 46.610 seconds
Winner: Marc-Andre Fleury, 14 consecutive saves
Puck Control Relay
Winner: Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary, 24.650 seconds
Winner: Alex Ovechkin, Washington, 101.3 mph
Winner: Brock Boeser, Vancouver, five targets in 11.136 seconds