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Breaking down favorites and sleepers ahead of the NHL all-star skills competition

The NHL All-Star Skills event goes Friday, with players squaring off in six events with $25,000 going to the winner of each competition. Who will take home the prize? And which players could sneak in to surprise us with their skills?

At the 2001 All-Star Skills Competition, without four-time defending hardest shot champion Al MacInnis in attendance, the event was wide-open.

If there was a favorite at the event, though, it was likely one of the defenders, as Scott Stevens, Ray Bourque and Rob Blake were among those set to line up and blast away. Among those believed to have an outside shot were Tony Amonte and Sergei Fedorov, a pair of noted snipers who could absolutely tee-off on a puck. But you know who won the event? Frederik Modin, the same Frederik Modin who was appearing at both his first and last all-star weekend in 2001.

It’s not like Modin simply lucked his way into the victory by way of a bad showing from the rest of his counterparts, either. Quite the opposite. Modin simply unloaded when he stepped up. With his first shot, he registered a 101.5 MPH blast that topped any shot MacInnis had won with in the past four years. And then on his second, Modin unleashed a 102.1 MPH blast, which was the hardest shot registered in the competition since Al Iafrate’s 102.7 MPH rocket at the 1994 skills competition. Looking back, in fact, that shot was hard enough that had he let it fly at last year’s game, it would have been Modin, not Alex Ovechkin, that won the event in 2018. Talk about a clapper.

This is to say that when it comes to the skills competition, the entire thing is pretty hard to handicap. Sometimes, a player comes out of nowhere — like Modin, a career 232-goal and 462-point scorer — to win an event and riding off into the sunset as an answer to an obscure trivia question. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try.

On the eve of the 2019 NHL All-Star Skills, here’s a look at the favorites for each event and, in the spirit of Modin, a potential sleeper pick that could swoop in and steal the $25,000 prize handed to the winner of each event:

SAVE STREAK
To win the Save Streak competition, a participating goaltender must string together the longest run of consecutive saves in what is essentially a breakaway competition. The four goaltenders participating in the event will face at least nine shooters from a division, though the save streak can exceed nine as a goaltender’s round can’t end on a goal against. If there’s a tie, the goaltender with the most saves in a round will be victorious. If there is still a tie based on saves in a round, the tied netminders will go head-to-head in a “goalie goal” competition.

The Favorite: There’s been no goaltender in the league who has been better than John Gibson, as the Ducks keeper has been the backbone of almost any and all successes in Anaheim this season. That would make him the frontrunner to win this event, right? Wrong. Given it’s similar to a shootout, the favorite should be Marc-Andre Fleury, who has allowed just one shootout goal on seven attempts this season and has a career .740 save percentage in the shootout. He’s also the defending champion.

The Sleeper: Henrik Lundqvist is coming into the weekend as the New York Rangers’ lone representative and with relatively little fanfare. But watch out for ‘King Henrik’ in this event. He has faced the second-most shootout attempts in NHL history and his .727 SP is only narrowly behind Fleury’s mark. Also worth noting is that Andrei Vasilevskiy has only allowed five shootout goals against in 41 attempts. His .878 is the best career mark of any keeper with that many shots against, but he’s yet to be tested this season.

PREMIER PASSER
This event has become a fixture of the weekend, and one that seems incredibly frustrating for those tasked with making pinpoint accurate passes. There are three skills to complete — breakout passes, target passes and the dreaded mini net passes — and the player who can get through each skill in the shortest time is the winner.

The Favorite:Nikita Kucherov is the league assists leader, but you know who everyone should keep an eye on? Blake Wheeler. The Winnipeg Jets captain has made his living feathering passes to Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine and has 21 assists on the power play this season. He’s used to finding lanes, and this will be his opportunity to show just how accurate he’s been in the passing game.

The Sleeper: The lights go out in the building. Silence. All of a sudden, glass shatters. That’s Joe Thornton’s music! All right, maybe not, but that would be the best outcome here. The real sleeper when it comes to the passing event might very well be Erik Karlsson, who is having himself a tremendous year and could work his way into the Norris Trophy conversation with the San Jose Sharks. As much as this might seem like an event made for high-skill forwards, it was St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo who won the event last season. Don’t count out the defenders.

PUCK CONTROL
Following a decade-long absence, this event returned in a new form last season. This isn’t your slightly older sibling’s puck control relay. No, in this version, players are tasked with stickhandling through 10 pucks before moving through a series of eight cones and onto three gates, where they are then “required to shoot or otherwise guide the puck through the lit rung of the gate.”

The Favorite: When the defending champion is in the house, you can rest-assured that he’s going to be given the top odds to win the event. Thus, Johnny Gaudreau is your favorite, as he smoked the competition last season and won the whole thing by nearly four seconds. With the way the Flames star is playing this season, too, there’s a good chance he could cut his time by a few seconds. He’s been incredible, playing like a Hart Trophy candidate, and his familiarity with the gates will no doubt help in the trickiest portion of the competition.

The Sleeper: Clayton Keller is one of the craftiest young players in the NHL, and it feels like this could be the moment for the Arizona Coyotes sophomore to strut his stuff on a big stage. He’s drawn comparisons to Patrick Kane — who competed in the event last year and is likely to do so again this time around — in the past, and not without reason. He’s creative, he’s smooth with the puck on his stick and he’s got the speed necessary to dart through the course.

ACCURACY SHOOTING
You know the drill, but if you didn’t tune in last season, you may have missed the new wrinkles: no longer are there only four targets and no longer are players picking their own spots. Last year, a fifth target was added to the mix, as players must now hit a five-hole target. Unlike the old targets that blew up on impact, too, the accuracy contest has gone high-tech. Players must hit the target that lights up — at random — within three seconds of it lighting up. After three seconds, if the target isn’t hit, the next target will light up. The round ends when all targets have been hit. (And that can get painful. Ask Anze Kopitar, who took nearly five-times longer to complete the drill as event-winner Brock Boeser last year.)

The Favorite: Past winners participating during all-star weekend this time around include Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane, and it’s the former who probably gets the nod as the favorite to win the event given his familiarity with its workings and the fact he had the fourth-best time last season. Kane’s time during the past iteration of the drill, though, was more than two seconds better than Crosby’s five-target time. Something to watch.

The Sleeper: There’s been no repeat winner in this drill since Jeremy Roenick (“Ha-ha!”) won it consecutive in 2003 and 2004. And given last year’s winner, Brock Boeser, isn’t in San Jose for all-star weekend, it’s going to be another year without a back-to-back winner. That said, what about winners from the same team in consecutive years? Elias Pettersson got the nod to go to the game for the Canucks and the young sniper could earn himself a nice payday with some quick work in this drill.

HARDEST SHOT
Self-explanatory and one of the signature events. Skate in, wind up and bring the hammer down. Whoever has the hardest shot after two rounds wins the competition.

The Favorite: Alex Ovechkin recusing himself from the weekend means the defending champion won’t be participating, which leaves Brent Burns and Steven Stamkos as the lone returnees. While the event was underwhelming for both last season, Stamkos might be the favorite this season given he’s not all that far removed from a 103.9 MPH blast during the 2016 skills competition. That would have been the winning shot last season, a full 2.6 MPH faster than Ovechkin’s blast.

The Sleeper: Generally, this is a defenseman-won event. So, who stands out as a potential winner? How about Seth Jones? During the 2017 event, he let loose a 98.1 MPH blast that would have been the fourth-hardest shot last year. He’s older, stronger and he’s familiar with the event now. With no nerves, he might be able to uncork one that breaks the 100 MPH mark.

FASTEST SKATER
Starting as much as three feet behind the line, players will hustle to complete one full lap around the rink. The player with the fastest time wins.

The Favorite: Connor McDavid. Don’t overthink it.

The Sleeper: A slightly slower Connor McDavid? Really, this shouldn’t even be a question. Maybe if, you know, the league just gave everyone what they wanted and sent Detroit Red Wings speedster Dylan Larkin to all-star weekend, we could have the head-to-head everyone’s waiting to see. Because Larkin isn’t in San Jose, though, the next-fastest skater is probably going to be Jack Eichel. The Buffalo Sabres center was less than fourth-tenths of a second slower than McDavid at last year’s event. If McDavid should stumble, Eichel’s the next-best bet.

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