SAN JOSE - The NHL All-Star weekend gives fans a chance to see fantasy line combinations in reality, particularly since the league switched to a divisional format with mini-games. But it’s not just fun for the spectators: the weekend allows the players themselves to see what their elite peers are up to and for both new and experienced, there are guys they want to see.
The top-end talent in the NHL right now is very deep and it’s interesting to see different cohorts represented. For instance, can you believe that Steven Stamkos’ first All-Star experience was in 2009? That was a decade ago!
“My first NHL All-Star Game was in Montreal as a ‘young gun,’ Stamkos said. “That was very overwhelming for me, seeing all those amazing players there. That was my first taste and it was really cool.”
It seems like yesterday that ‘Seen Stamkos’ billboards were being put up by the Tampa Bay Lightning in honor of the star they were about to draft, but Stamkos, along with draft mate Drew Doughty and fellow No. 1 John Tavares, are actually part of an older guard now.
The more recent phenoms include Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel, with more coming. So who are the veterans excited to see in San Jose this weekend?
“I’d say Elias Pettersson for sure,” Stamkos said. “We played Vancouver a couple times and I’m excited to see what he can do. I get a front-row seat to Matthews and Eichel and those guys in our division, so for me right now, with what he’s doing and the year he’s had, it’s Pettersson.”
Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne is one of the oldest stars around right now and he’s keeping it country. Well, not the Nashville kind of country, but you’ll see what I mean.
“I’m going to put my Finnish glasses on,” Rinne said. “I’ll be rooting for Sebastian Aho, Mikko Rantanen and Miro Heiskanen. It’s been amazing to watch those guys. (Teammate) Roman Josi of course, too.”
But for the younger generation, the All-Star festivities truly can be a dream come true.
“Of course, there is Erik Karlsson,” Heiskanen said. “I watched him a lot when I was younger. Brent Burns, too. There are a lot of players who I was in the basement when I was young and it’s great to meet them here.”
Young Buffalo Sabres captain Eichel hopes to build on some of the insights he gained last year from a certain No. 87.
“Arguably one of the best players in the history of the game is Sidney Crosby,” he said. “Him being here is really cool. Being around him last year was really cool - he’s somebody I looked up to a lot growing up. In the room, he seems like a pretty normal guy and that’s what makes him so special. He’s competitive, he wants to win everything he does and you can see it with the three Stanley Cups and all the accolades. He’s a friendly guy, he’s normal and that says a lot about him.”
New York Islanders center Matt Barzal also tabbed Crosby as a fave, but he’s also excited to play with one of Sid’s rivals from the Philadelphia Flyers.
“I’m pretty fortunate to play with Crosby and Giroux this week,” Barzal said. “Claude Giroux is a guy who, when I was asked who I played like when I was younger, I would say him: right-handed and pretty crafty.”
Things are moving pretty fast in the NHL these days. As their contract talks can attest to, even the “new” phenoms have some experience under their belts and that makes it fun to pick favorites for first-time all-stars such as Arizona’s Clayton Keller.
“Probably Connor McDavid,” he said. “Or Auston Matthews, one of those two.”
It's a fun question, but certainly not always easy when there are so many possible answers.