TAMPA – Drew Doughty has two Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals thanks in part to his clutch play on the blueline. Brad Marchand and Nikita Kucherov are two of the most deadly offensive threats in the game today. But even the best players in the world can stumble sometimes. That was the case at the All-Star Skills Competition, where Kucherov and Doughty were beguiled by the passing challenge, while Marchand struggled in the accuracy contest. They may be some of the best players in the world, but you had to feel for these guys a bit.
“A bunch of people said to me, ‘you’re never nervous, you’ve got all the confidence in the world,’ Doughty said. “But when you’re the only guy on the ice in front of that many people and things start to go south, they really start going south.”
Doughty and Kucherov both spent more than a minute and a half on the event, whereas Alex Pietrangelo won the contest with a time of 46 seconds. For Doughty it felt like he was out there for much longer than he actually was. The light-up targets at the beginning and the saucing of passes over a barrier and into mini-nets were the vexing parts.
“The key is getting a couple early,” Pietrangelo said. “If you miss a couple early, your confidence goes down real quick. And if it wasn’t timed, you might actually see quicker times without realizing it. As soon as someone sets a pace and you have to beat it, you start thinking twice about things.”
Getting into a rhythm was also important for the shooting accuracy, which had a new wrinkle this year with light-up targets that popped on randomly.
“And with the lights lighting up, it kinda kicked your rhythm off a little bit,” Marchand said. “But I don’t think that was the problem – I was just hitting the middle of the net when I was supposed to hit the sides. There’s a lot of pressure, even though you’re having a good time.”
There were several new events this year, created in the interest of keeping things fresh for All-Star weekend.
“After looking at last year – it was a little convoluted with a lot of team-oriented stuff and scoring was a little convoluted, so we went back to basics,” said Patrick Burke, the NHL’s director of player safety. “We asked, ‘What are the hockey skills we want to test?’ A hard shot, an accurate shot, a fast skater and passing. We talked to (NHL executive VP and chief content officer) Steve Mayer and his group, we talked to Kay Whitmore, George Parros and Ray Whitney and talked about what it looks like when guys make good passes.”
And make no mistake, with the passing event in particular, those who were spared the challenge of taking on the course were sympathetic towards their fellow stars who did have to navigate the field.
“I wouldn’t have even gotten over the barriers,” Marchand said. “I’m happy I didn’t have to do that – it would have been like, eight minutes.”
Perhaps an underrated part of the challenge was that it’s not something players have ever practised before. Though their natural abilities and muscle memory are obvious when you watch these players dazzle during a game, the pressure is compounded when they are trying to size up a brand-new challenge, like the mini-net/barrier combination.
“You can’t decide if you should look down at the puck and sauce it or look at the net and sauce it,” Doughty said. “I’m used to hitting a moving target and they adjust to pick up the pass.”
But at the end of the night, it was all in good fun. Doughty and Anze Kopitar (who had trouble with the accuracy contest) joked that they really represented the Los Angeles Kings well with their performances, while Pietrangelo said that his only mission was to do better than St. Louis Blues teammate Brayden Schenn. And while some of the players watching from the sidelines were merciful, others couldn’t help themselves when their flummoxed buddies returned. That happened to Marchand when fellow Nova Scotians Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon caught his ear.
“Sid gave me a bit of heat,” he said. “But that comes with the territory. When you take a minute and everybody else does 10 seconds, you deserve the heat.”