Beyond the Headlines: NHL faces tough All-Star Game selection process

Ron MacLean, Nick Kypreos, Chris Johnston and Elliotte Friedman discuss all the news and notes from around the NHL.

‘Beyond Headlines’ is a deeper dive into some of the stories — and even some that weren’t — discussed each week on Hockey Night in Canada’s ‘Headlines’ segment.

The NHL’s hockey operations department has a problem on its hands as we approach the midpoint of a season where goals are raining from the sky.

Classify it as one of those good problems to have, sure — the league is overflowing with players enjoying monster years — but that doesn’t change the fact there’ll be some consternation as the All-Star Game selections are finalized in the coming week or so.

Cue the online outrage.

In Calgary, Toronto and Winnipeg, there will be high-profile snubs, at least initially. It’s unavoidable. Same with Tampa and Colorado.

The parameters around the always-difficult selection process have been tightened even more this year — with fans voting in the four division captains, as usual, but also the “last man in” on each team as well.

Sandwiched between that, the league’s hockey ops staff gets nine picks per division and will attempt to ensure each of the following criteria are satisfied:

• Have a representative from all 31 teams
• Include the top 10 to 15 league scorers at the time of selection
• Include as many of the NHL’s marketed “stars” as possible
• Ensure the host team, the San Jose Sharks, is well-represented

It’s a jigsaw puzzle that will inevitably be shuffled around by injuries and a possible no-show or two (players must still sit a game directly before or after the break if they chose not to come).

It’s also a formula that doesn’t allow for Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Marc Giordano, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm to attend together even though each of those Flames players has built a strong case.

Realistically you’re looking at two from that group. Three tops.

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There won’t be room for all of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Morgan Rielly, and Freddie Andersen to make the trip from Toronto, either.

You’d have to think both Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler are locks as top-10 league scorers, but can you leave their Winnipeg Jets teammate Patrik Laine at home?

The best line in hockey this season has unquestionably been Gabriel Landeskog-Nathan MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen, but there’s no guarantee all three members of the Colorado Avalanche will be invited to the All-Star three-on-three tournament. And what about the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning? How many of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy can you make room for?

The numbers game isn’t pretty.

Each division gets six forwards, three defencemen and two goalies. That’s 11 players aside with eight NHL teams needing a representative in three of four divisions. As we entered games Sunday, six of the NHL’s top-15 scorers were from the Central while five played out of the Atlantic.

The squeeze is on.

Unless Santa gifts the hockey ops folks a few extra roster spots this Christmas, there’s going to be some deserving candidates left at home when the final decisions are made coming out of the holiday break.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

OTTAWA

OK, on to Headlines.

We witnessed an impressive feat Saturday when colleague Elliotte Friedman managed to explore three significant angles of the developing arena story in Ottawa without once coming up for air.

It’s a testament not only to the complexity of the Senators situation, but also Friedge’s willingness to sink his reporting teeth into a matter that is deeply rooted in politics, real estate and big business, rather than just our usual spot over in the corner of the sporting sandbox.

One key takeaway for me: It’s significant that Eugene Melnyk received a recent $400-million offer for the Senators even if it was turned down out of hand. There are persistent whispers about work being done behind the scenes to quietly gauge interest from potential ownership groups.

With the hopes for a new downtown arena now dashed and Melnyk involved in some significant lawsuits, there may not be a for-sale sign on the front lawn in Kanata just yet. But there is definitely a window of opportunity for someone else to step up and make a serious pitch for the team.

Might an offer come that’s too good for Melnyk to refuse?

Rest assured, this will not be the last time we dig into the topic this season. Hopefully, Friedge is gifted an oxygen tank before it’s big news again.

GOALIE MARKET

Time ran really short on this Headlines segment — three planned topics were dropped on the fly, perhaps to be reloaded in the queue for next Saturday — but Nick Kypreos managed to slide in a juicy nugget just before the Hometown Hockey promo.

Jonathan Quick is a Philadelphia Flyers trade target, Kyper reported.

Now, this is interesting on a couple levels. First, the Flyers search for a goaltender has already shown some signs of progress with the way 20-year-old Carter Hart started his NHL career this week, but you can understand the desire to find an experienced and accomplished mentor for him.

However, that particular resource isn’t readily available on the trade market, which means the Los Angeles Kings have a pretty big chip to play should they decide to make Quick available.

Even with his string of recent injuries, his age (32), and his four remaining years under contract, Quick still moves the needle. The AAV on his deal is $5.8-million but his actual salary declines from $3.5-million to $3-million to $2.5-million in the final three seasons.

Consider the other options in net: Scott Darling could be had from Carolina, but he’s struggled mightily and is currently in the American Hockey League; Cory Schneider has been in a rut since off-season hip surgery and would be an expensive bet if someone wanted to risk making a deal with the Devils; Keith Kinkaid is also a pending UFA in New Jersey; and Jimmy Howard is on an expiring deal, but he’s got a strong desire to remain in Detroit and might only be a rental, if he’s moved at all by the Feb. 25 deadline.

There aren’t many “sure things” out there beyond Sergei Bobrovsky, who is likely to test free agency on July 1. And even he’s had his fair share of ups and downs in Columbus this season.

LIGHTNING BOLTS

When I saw Jon Cooper earlier this month he was really excited for the run-up to the holiday break. The Tampa Bay Lightning coach viewed the five-game stretch as a potential barometer for where his team was at, with a tough road trip through Western Canada and the first head-to-head meetings against Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary among the segment.

It’s fair to say the Lightning passed with flying colours.

They went 4-0-1, with the only loss coming against the Jets in overtime last Sunday in what may be the game of the year so far. Tampa is on pace for 128 points (!) after a ridiculous 28-7-2 start and continues to score like the 1980s Oilers.

Quite understandably, the Lightning have earned a fair amount of respect in the process.

“It looks to me like Tampa is better than us. It looks like they’re better than everybody right now in the league,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said this week. “I’m not saying they’re deeper, I’m not saying they’re more talented, I’m not saying any of that. But, the maturity level to play every night and find a way to win seems to be there.

“They’ve been through what a lot of teams are going through a number of times. They’ve had disappointment at playoff time and they look like they’re battle-scarred and ready to go.”

We’ve still got a lot of runway left on this season, but they’re unquestionably the team to beat right now. And with the salary cap set to bite into that Tampa roster this summer, this is their golden opportunity.

TRYING NEW THINGS

Tales of interest coaching decisions, Vol. 1: It’s Dec. 15 in Nashville and New Jersey is trailing 1-0 with 2:25 remaining in the third period. There’s an offensive zone faceoff.

Devils coach John Hynes decides to throw forwards Brian Boyle, Nico Hischier, Marcus Johansson and Kyle Palmieri over the boards, along with defenceman Will Butcher. After his team wins the draw and takes control of the puck, Hynes puts out a fifth forward — Jesper Bratt — in place of Kinkaid, his goaltender.

Guess what happens next?

Bratt and Johansson execute a clean zone entry immediately before Boyle ties the game and the Devils earn a valuable point in the standings.

Ingenuity pays off.

FINAL WORD

The remaining three-plus years and $12.6-million on Patrik Berglund’s contract was terminated by the Buffalo Sabres this week and there’s been no word of a forthcoming grievance to challenge that decision.

There’s been no word at all, in fact, from the player or his camp on why he missed a Sabres team flight or if he intends to try and continue his NHL career now that he’s officially an unrestricted free agent.

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