The Tampa Bay Lightning are sending too many players to the All-Star Game and it’s impossible to blame them. The National Hockey League announced the rosters for this year’s late-January event, and what jumped out at me at first was the Atlantic Division. Needless to say, there’s a bit of weight given to one team:
- F Aleksander Barkov, FLA (1st)
- F Jack Eichel, BUF (1st)
- F Nikita Kucherov, TBL (2nd)
- F Brad Marchand, BOS (2nd)
- F Auston Matthews, TOR (2nd)
- F Steven Stamkos, TBL* (5th)
- D Mike Green, DET (2nd)
- D Victor Hedman, TBL (2nd)
- D Erik Karlsson, OTT (5th)
- G Carey Price, MTL (6th)
- G Andrei Vasilevskiy, TBL (1st)
- Head Coach: Jon Cooper, TBL (1st)
So in a roster of eleven players, the Lightning have four players and the head coach. That’s a bit under 50% of total representation for the Atlantic Division.
The difficult thing? Well, you can’t really argue against anybody. At least in any sort of rational aspect. Nikita Kucherov leads the NHL in goals and points, with an obscene 60 points in 43 games. Steven Stamkos is tied for second in points. Victor Hedman is third amongst defenceman in the statistic and on any given year can be considered the second-best defenceman in the world. Andrei Vasilevskiy is fifth in save percentage, and everybody ahead of him has played fewer than half as many games as him. Tampa are first overall right now, and 12 points ahead of the rest of the division, so you have to give Cooper the nod behind the bench.
Oh, and did I mention they’re the host city? So yeah, it’s not hard to imagine why you’d like the most substantial players on the team to get seen. But there is a bit of a tradeoff to be had. Because they’ve taken four players, every single other team in the Atlantic Division can only send one.
For some teams in the division, that’s completely fine. But the Leafs will probably argue that Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen deserve to be in there. The Bruins will argue for David Pastrnak, the Panthers for Jonathan Huberdeau, the Senators for Mark Stone. It’s a tough spot, and while the “host city” element might not necessarily apply this time because of the quality of Tampa’s players involved, I’d imagine that if someone else was hosting, we’d see them consider a concession at least one of those to squeak another player in for balance. No other team in the league is sending more than two representatives, and while Tampa has heavy hitters atop, I can’t imagine that other teams couldn’t make an argument for three.
Not to mention, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen teams swarm the game. Montreal’s 2009 effort is likely the most famous for the fact that it a) relied on bot-driven fan voting and b) allowed Mike Komisarek to somehow put “NHL All-Star” on his resume, but Ottawa in 2012 and Nashville in 2016 have also found their way into getting four selections on home ice.
It wasn’t as apparent for Ottawa in the full-game format, where you can mix four players into a full roster, but in Nashville and Tampa’s case, they’ll be getting one-third of the skater ice time and half the goaltender ice time for their division. Given that we’ve seen this happen twice in three years now, here’s an idea moving ahead:
Why not just make the hosts the fifth team?
After all, this would allow for three or four more “big name” players to be seen by the fans. While there is an element of cheering for “your guys” that’s neat about these games, one of the main attractions for going to the game in-person is seeing all the superstars that you normally wouldn’t at the same time. Seeing your own players play an exhibition game that they take less seriously than a pre-season game doesn’t seem like a brilliant return if I’m spending premium prices to attend.
A popular suggestion is to drop the one-player-per-team minimum, but given that this is a marketing-driven event, I doubt the league wants some teams not participating at all. That creates a big damper on buzz and discourages television audiences from paying attention in certain cities.
You could also drop the focus on positions, which allows for swaps like Mike Green for Dylan Larkin, or Seth Jones and Noah Hanifin for Artemi Panarin and Sebastian Aho in the Metropolitan, but then defencemen would likely be all but abolished from the event. Even as a defence abolitionist, this deems drastic.
Adding the hosts as a fourth team makes a lot of sense to me. It allows for divisions to have most of their teams send multiple players, which is good for the audience and good for the teams form an exposure standpoint. The NHL teams could run their full roster, or trim things down to make their own 3v3 focused All-Stars (Hell, if they wanted to, go crazy and add alumni! The Lighting are retiring Martin St. Louis’ number this weekend; imagine if they had him play in the All-Star Game for them?).
They might not be as stacked as the divisions at that point, but they could rely on chemistry. Plus, there would be more pride in trying to win the game for them, which would likely drive up the competition level across the boards. If one team clearly, dearly wants to win in front of their fans, their opponents won’t sit back and that should spill off into other games. It would also mean that a team could miss the knockout stages, giving teams an incentive to stay out of the bottom.
To do this, you’d likely have to switch to a round-robin + semis + finals format instead of the three-game one they have now, which will come with shorter times (say, five-minute games with next goal wins if tied), with “full” breaks every 4-5 games). That to me sounds much more exciting than 30 minutes of laid back, half-assed 3-on-3.
In summation, I didn’t mean to pick on the Lightning here; they just happened to be the host team in question this year (though, admittedly, I do like teasing about how “compliment a Tampa player” is the key to sounding smart about hockey without angering anyone). But I really do think a Host team is the best case scenario here; a way to allow us to spread out representation while keeping the local fans happy and perking up the intensity of the event.