You have to admire the NHL for being bold with their formats for the All-Star Game over the years, or as its known this year, the Tim Horton's 2012 NHL All-Star Game. This edition of the game marks the second year of the All-Star Fantasy Draft, where several captains get to pick their own team from a pool of available talent. On Thursday, Daniel Alfredsson and Zdeno Chara made some predictable selections with Team Alfredsson, co-captained by Henrik Lundqvist, loading up on Swedes and Team Chara grabbing all the available eastern European talent and scooping up his Boston teammates, Tim Thomas and Tyler Seguin.
While not perfect, this format certainly has made the All-Star game more entertaining to follow, especially last year, with the Leafs' Phil Kessel being the last girl asked to dance, brooding before saying "it's not a big deal." San Jose's Logan Couture was the last man picked this time around, earning a new Honda SUV for his pains. Previous formats for the All-Star Game have included the traditional East versus West and the old school Campbell versus Wales, and the much discussed North America versus the World (and by "world", we mean northern and eastern Europe). However, the star of the weekend has always been the Skills Competition, or more accurately, the Molson Canadian Skills Competition. Memories of Al Iafrate's booming slap shot, Mike Gartner blazing around the rink in the fastest skater competition and Owen Nolan calling his shot against Dominik Hasek always return when the skills competition is talked about. On Saturday, Zdeno Chara blasted a 108.8 miles-per-hour slap shot to win the hardest shot contest, but wouldn't it be more interesting if the players busted out the wooden Sher-Woods and Kohos next year, just see where they'd measure up without the benefit of the composite cannons they use now?
The All-Star game itself is nothing more than a free-wheeling offensive showcase devoid of checking and defense, albeit fun to watch. At least the NHL hasn't gone the route of baseball, attaching something as important as home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Finals to the All-Star Game.
The 12 defensemen on the NHL All-Star roster are an offensive-minded group spearheaded by Ottawa's Erik Karlsson and the resurgent Brian Campbell from the Panthers. It's nice to see an all-around talent such as the Rangers' Dan Girardi invited to the game, as most All-Star selections, and the Norris Trophy race, are determined by offensive prowess. However, Girardi had one of the more awkward introductions by TSN host James Duthie, as Duthie felt the need to remind Girardi in front of his peers and the crowd that Girardi was the only player at the All-Star Game not drafted to begin his NHL career, drawing an annoyed reaction from Girardi.
Washington's Dennis Wideman is enjoying a career season and was rewarded with a selection to the game, while Vancouver's Alexander Edler can essentially make reservations in the All-Star Game for years to come. The Canucks' defender has been highly productive this year, with 34 points through 49 games. Edler should be one of the top five defensemen off the board in next fall's drafts, especially considering his status as the Sedins' personal point man.
Out of the stable of 12 defenders on the two All-Star game rosters, only Wideman and Philly's Kimmo Timonen have been true values based on being taken later in drafts. Timomen's 31 points on the season may allow him to challenge the 50-point barrier, something he has not hit since his last year in Nashville, 2006-07, where he notched a career-best 55 points. Sure, Girardi was taken late in drafts as well, but average ice-time, leadership and strong defensive play do not translate into fantasy statistics. The Welland, Ontario native holds value in deeper leagues that reward hits and blocked shots, as he is among the leaders for defensemen in both categories.
In multi-category leagues, a defenseman's points-per-game ratio is still one of the primary statistics on which to base a player's selection. The superhuman .92 rate of Erik Karlsson would always be nice, but something in between .66 and .75 is more than ideal. More so, acceptable rates of .50 would still give defenders a 40-point season when stretched out over a full campaign. Winnipeg's Tobias Enstrom has been outstanding of late, owner of 19 points in 30 games, while Keith Yandle's .58 point-per-game rate is more than adequate for most owners, as he leads Phoenix from the blue line with upstart Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Recently back from injury, the Penguins' Kris Letang has 23 points in 26 contests.
Points are still king, but players that contribute in multiple categories can be the difference between finishing in the money or just outside of it. During the 2009-10 season, when Washington's Mike Green and his fantasy owners were enjoying his 76 points in 75 games, his defense partner, Jeff Schultz, was a massive boon for owners that snagged him on waivers. Schultz is still on the Captials, unbeknownst to most owners, with five assists over 27 games this season and a plus-1. While Green was making history two seasons earlier, Schultz put up a pedestrian 23 points with a whopping plus-50, finishing the season with a plus-19 from February on and notching a plus-12 in the season's final four games before Washington's embarrassing playoff loss to Montreal. (The Capitals have since commemorated that 2009-10 first-round playoff exit with a banner reading "Regular Season Eastern Conference Champs" in Verizon Center).
The point is this: owners in deeper leagues will be able to tolerate a defenseman that put up just six assists the final six weeks of the season if there is a bonus stat attached to it. This season, Boston seems to be the home of the NHL's plus-minus boosters, with Vancouver a close second. The Bruins' defenders are benefiting from the team's highly potent and balanced offense.
Joe Corvo has the pedigree of having been a productive player during his career and boasts 17 points and a hearty plus-14 rating presently while teammate Adam McQuaid can be a boost to those in leagues that reward penalty minutes, as he has 53 while sporting a plus-16.
Dennis Seidenberg is averaging over two shots per game with a plus-16 rating and owner of 17 points, numbers that are in line with the 30, 32 and 32 points the German has put up the last three seasons. One of the truer surprises on the Boston blue line is the career-best pace for veteran Andrew Ference. Having never posted more than 31 points in a season, with that season, 2005-06, being the only time he cracked 20. Ference has 20 points this year through 43 games and his plus-minus checks in at plus-15. If Ference is still kicking around in your league, he is well worth a look for those of you in deeper pools. Odds are Boston is not going to slow down too much, and if they do, it won't be for a long stretch. Their defensive players are benefitting highly from their team's attack, making relevant players out of defensemen usually ignored by most.
When it comes to the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers, much of the defensemen discussion is slanted toward Dan Girardi and the upstart Michael Del Zotto, whose pace has slowed considerably, putting up just two points in January. Regardless, Del Zotto is one of the team's up and coming players but hardly the surprise on the team's blue line. Ryan McDonagh's 19 points and plus-17 rating through 47 games have him on pace to crack 30 points in his first full NHL season. The promising youngster is also following Girardi's lead in the shot-blocking department with 115 blocks. McDonagh is not grabbing the power-play points, with just two of his 19 coming on the man-advantage, but his production in secondary statistics make him a valuable commodity, especially in keeper leagues.
The Hurricanes have been playing some stronger hockey under the energy and tutelage of new coach Kirk Muller and the team has several rising talents on the blue line in Jamie McBain and 19-year old Justin Faulk. Jay Harrison, not to be confused with Florda's Jason Garrison, is enjoying a solid season with 19 points through 41 games, with five points on the man-advantage. Harrison's minus-4 rating actually is not bad considering Carolina's defensive woes. In his brief NHL career, the 29-year old has already eclipsed his career total of 18 points with this season alone. Harrison could be a bargain in some leagues and his seven goals have him tied for sixth in the league amongst defenders.
Anaheim's Francois Beauchemin has a solid 18 points with a plus-1 on the season while, a few hundred miles up the Pacific Coast, Vancouver's Dan Hamhuis is in the midst of one of his strongest offensive season in years, with 23 points through 49 games. That is the same point total Hamhuis put up in 64 games last season with the Canucks. His career high is 38 points, which he registered in the 2005-06 season for Nashville. Hamhuis's numbers this season have been, for the most part, consistent and he owns a healthy 10 points on the power play. Given his plus-12 rating on a talented offensive team, Hamhuis can be a steady, albeit unspectacular, addition to your roster down the stretch.
Question of the week: Which NHL team needs the most help on defense heading into the final two months of the season?
Contact Dan Pennucci and follow him on Twitter @DVNucci42.