Sidney Crosby Image by: Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images
The NHL will shine the spotlight on the players' abilities with events, old and new, that focus on individual skills rather than team-based success.
The NHL is looking to get more eyes on all-star weekend’s skills competition, and their ploy to do so is to put the focus back on the individual.
On Monday, the league announced the breakdown of the events, which included some unchanged favorites, some tweaks to past events and a pair of brand new ideas that will shine a light on some skills not often highlighted at past competitions. Among the recognizable events are the hardest shot and fastest skater contests, while another old favorite, the accuracy shooting challenge, has an added twist to challenge players to think quickly before firing pucks. Meanwhile, the league has brought back the solo puck control relay, while adding in a passing challenge and one event specifically designed to put the goaltenders on the hot seat.
New events and new designs for past mini-games aren’t the only changes, however. Rather, the league has decided to scrap the team-based battle, which has traditionally seen a format of East against West or division-versus-division, in favor of handing out prize money to single skaters. Each skater who wins an event will be awarded $25,000, giving the players involved a bit of an added incentive to put their best foot forward.
So, who has the best chance of taking home some prize money? Here are breakdowns of each event, along with the favorites and potential dark horses who could take home the cash:
Let’s be honest. For as much effort as the league has previously put into spicing up the breakaway events in order to conjure up their own version of the NBA’s dunk competition, which is the undisputed king of individual all-star game events, it has always been the hardest shot competition that draws the most intrigue. It’s why every hockey fan has a fond memory of a past all-star obliterating a puck. For some, it’s Al Iafrate. Others remember Al MacInnis most fondly. And the current generation has watched Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber intently.
And you know the NHL has an event right when it needs no change, because the hardest shot is much the same as its always been: players will skate in from the blueline and rocket pucks on goal to see who can pop the highest MPH on the radar gun.
Favorites: With neither Weber or Chara competing after winning the past eight contests, the field is wide open. And while there are some defenders with booming shots set to compete, including P.K. Subban and Drew Doughty, the favorites might be forwards. Alex Ovechkin has hit 100 MPH previously in the event, but Steven Stamkos’ 103.9 MPH at the 2016 Skills Competition puts him in line to win the whole thing.
Dark Horse: There’s an element of size and strength to the hardest shooter. It’s part of the reason Chara and Weber have been so dominant. So, who could sneak in to muscle the hardest shot? It wouldn’t be too surprising if someone such as Noah Hanifin skated up and blasted one out of nowhere. His 6-foot-3, 206-pound frame might be able to get some serious torque on a shot. Same goes for Alex Pietrangelo.
If there’s a second-most popular event, it’s the fastest skater. The rules of the event are nearly identical to past years, with skaters required to skate a full lap in either direction. Players will get a three-foot head start, too, as they’ll begin their lap behind the red line with the clock kicking in as soon as they cross it. And in an era built on speed over size, don’t be surprised if we see a record-setting performance.
Favorites: This is Connor McDavid’s event to lose, with everyone else likely skating for second place. The real tragedy here is that Dylan Larkin — barring his addition as an injury replacement — won’t be at the event, which means we don’t get a chance to see the two fastest skaters in recent years square off. That race was made for TV.
Dark Horse: If McDavid stumbles around a corner or something, would anyone count out Letang? He has previously competed in the event and acquitted himself well with a 14-second time. And Nathan MacKinnon is certainly one to watch, those he’s only a dark horse in the sense that no one should really be expecting anything less than a McDavid victory.
Another classic event, but this time with a new wrinkle. In the past, players were allowed to work their way around the four targets, one located in each corner, as they saw fit. This time around, though, the shooters will be guided around the five — yes, five — targets. When the timer starts on each player’s round, a target will be illuminated for three seconds, during which time the player will have to take aim and attempt to destroy it. If they break the target or fail to hit it within three seconds, another target will be lit up. This will continue until all five targets, which one assumes will be in the four corners and in the vicinity of the five-hole, are blown to smithereens.
Favorites: This is a pure sniper event, which seems to bode well for someone such as Nikita Kucherov, who seemingly can’t miss this season. However, the past two skills competitions may give us an indication of players who are both familiar with and have been successful at the event, including McDavid, John Tavares, Sidney Crosby and Auston Matthews. We have to go back to 2016 to find Tavares’ best, where he broke all four targets in 12.29 seconds, which puts him a fraction of a second back of Auston Matthews, who registered 12.28 at the 2017 event. Bookending Tavares and Matthews are McDavid, who knocked all four targets in 15.64 seconds, and Crosby, who dominated the field with four targets in 10.73 seconds. No reason to doubt Crosby can win it again.
Dark Horse: It wouldn’t be fair to call someone such as Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand a dark horse in this competition. Each is a sniper in their own right, so a victory by any of the three won’t be surprising. But what about defender such as Mike Green? The Red Wings defenseman had some years as a top blueline goal-scorer and that was predicated on accuracy, not force. Ray Bourque won the event eight times, so it’s not out of the question that a defenseman wins.
PUCK CONTROL RELAY
Gone is the multi-faceted, multi-player relay and in its place is a new single-skater event, harkening back to a time when it was up to an individual player to show his ability to dispy-doodle around some obstacles. It’s a welcome change, too. No more sharp-angle one-timers and goalie goals? Sounds good!
According to the NHL’s description, the event will work in three stages: stickhandling, cone control and gates. The first is straightforward, as the player will have to handle his way through eight pucks. The second is similar to what we’ve seen in years prior, with players dashing around pylons placed on the ice. The new element, however, is gates, which will require players to maneuver the puck through whichever gate lights up.
Favorites: By now we’ve all seen the Patrick Kane commercial where he dangles his way around pucks spread across the ice, right? So, knowing Kane has that type of stickhandling skill in his back pocket makes it hard to imagine he’s not a frontrunner — or the out-and-out favorite — in this event. It seems almost tailor-made for someone will his skill set. He has some skillful challengers depending on how the event breaks down, though. Matthews, McDavid and Jack Eichel have incredible sets of hands. As does Johnny Gaudreau, who has a build and acumen similar to that of Paul Kariya and Martin St-Louis, two former stars who won a comparable event.
Dark Horse: The same event won by Kariya and St-Louis was also won by Rick Nash and Shawn Horcoff, which is to say power forwards can showcase some moves, too. So, maybe we see Blake Wheeler, James Neal or Eric Staal stand out in the event. But it might not be wise to sleep on the defenders, either. Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson can make magic with the puck on their stick.
One of two new events, the Passing Challenge is a one-round, three-skill competition. Players will first have to pass to four targets which will light up in a random sequence, then complete a give-and-go course while skating through the neutral zone. Easy enough? Well, the final skill is hitting those dreaded mini-nets. You know the ones; barely big enough to fit a puck and small enough that you can actually watch each player’s frustration level rise as they saucer pass pucks rapid fire by the tiny opening. Whoever can hit these nets the fastest is going to win.
Favorites: Josh Bailey is basically riding the hockey equivalent of a playmaking heater. He’s been on fire since the start of the season as the New York Islanders’ primary playmaker and the passing event gives him a chance to showcase his skills. That said, Claude Giroux is among the league's assist leaders and can do some damage in this event if he finds a groove. Gaudreau and McDavid might also shine in this event, and don’t overlook Doughty and Tavares, who are familiar with the mini-nets from past skills competitions.
Dark Horse: John Klingberg has been the best playmaking defenseman all season, leading all rearguards with 40 assists as the Dallas Stars head toward the break. Making accurate outlet passes is how he makes his living and that could really benefit him in this event. Everyone expects the high-skill forwards to top the charts in this type of event, but Klingberg should get some consideration.
A new event for the masked men and one that’s actually quite welcome. In past years, the shootout relay has turned into an event that’s dominated by the goaltenders, so instead of thinking too hard and overcomplicating the event, the NHL has simply turned the goalie-versus-shooter competition into one that’s based on saves and not goals. Five goalies will take part with each facing an opposing division’s nine-skater roster. The goalie with the longest streak of saves will be crowned the winner. One quick note, though: if a netminder pieces together, say, a seven-save streak, allows a goal on shot eight and then stops shot nine, he keeps going. The round can’t end with a save, so this competition could see one goaltender make an unexpected push for the win even if he’s beaten early on.
Favorites: Andrei Vasilevskiy has seven — count ‘em, seven — shutouts this season. So, you know, he’s used to going on some 60-minute-long save streaks. That’s going to play into his hands in this event. It also helps that the Tampa Bay Lightning netminder has the best shootout save percentage of any netminder heading to the festivities. Right alongside him, though, is Braden Holtby, and the Washington Capitals ‘tender could snatch the event from the hometown hero.
Dark Horse: It’s hard to pick a dark horse given it’s a five-goalie event based on stopping pucks. Each goaltender is basically doing their job. However, Connor Hellebuyck might fit the bill as a dark horse given he has the worst save percentage on shootout attempts of the all-star netminders. He’s allowed four goals on 10 shots. He’s otherwise been a brick wall for the Winnipeg Jets, though.