Exploring better ways for the NHL to select players for the All-Star Game

The selection of players for the NHL All-Star Game raised eyebrows across the league. Instead of selecting players based on their performance on the ice, the NHL has to go with a more egalitarian approach, selecting at least one player per team and then adding in the remainder from there.

While this does allow for a broader viewing demographic, and make the sport more engaging for fans of teams mired in rebuilds, it does a major disservice to players who are having career years on thriving teams. It also hurts the NHL’s ability to truly market their stars to a broader audience.

Being an All-Star means something to players. It represents a validation of one’s individual performance that’s recognized at a league level. To see how performance can be tied to All-Star selections, here are three different ways that the NHL could have selected their players as opposed to the way that they currently did: Pure points, expected goals, and goals above replacement (the latter two courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com).

In order to build teams, you need a mix of forwards, defencemen, and goalies. Leaving goalies, for the end, we have picked rosters of nine skaters comprised of six forwards and three defencemen just like the NHL did. Let’s break it down.

Picking players by pure points

This one needs little introduction. The more points you put in the back of the net, the more likely you were to earn a spot in the All-Star Game. Here’s who would have been invited:

Metropolitan DivisionAtlantic DivisionCentral DivisionPacific Division
Alex Ovechkin (WSH)Steven Stamkos (TBL)Pierre-Luc Dubois (WPG)Leon Draisaitl (EDM)
Sebastian Aho (CAR)Jonathan Huberdeau (FLA)Nazem Kadri (COL)Connor McDavid (EDM)
Artemi Panarin (NYR)Brad Marchand (BOS)Mikko Rantanen (COL)Johnny Gaudreau (CGY)
Evgeny Kuznetsov (WSH)Auston Matthews (TOR)Kirill Kaprizov (MIN)Timo Meier (SJS)
Jake Guentzel (PIT)William Nylander (TOR)Kyle Connor (WPG)J.T. Miller (VAN)
Adam Fox (NYR)Victor Hedman (TBL)Roman Josi (NSH)Quinn Hughes (VAN)
John Carlson (WSH)Morgan Rielly (TOR)Cale Makar (COL)Brent Burns (SJS)
Kris Letang (PIT)Moritz Seider (DET)Seth Jones (CHI)Shea Theodore (VGK)

This approach prioritizes the most important part of the game of hockey, putting points on the board, and rewards players who are best able to do so. Looking at the list, some teams earned themselves more spots than others; the Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals, and Colorado Avalanche each have three spots while 13 teams would have no skaters selected to be part of the tournament.

This would probably be the most fun All Star game in recent memory. It would be pure offence on offence in a game setting, and would allow the league to truly showcase what makes hockey such an exciting sport. The revenue potential in this would be enormous, and really highlights exciting offensive players from across the league.

Expected Goals For

Unlike points, this metric highlights potential. Players who are more likely to have scored goals even if the puck did not go in the back of the net. Points can be driven heavily by luck and shooting percentage, and expected goals would instead highlight the players who are consistently good at driving play and help their teams get opportunities to score.

It might not be as flashy as overall points, but these are some of the best players at driving play. It could encourage some levels of defence at the All-Star Game too, which could be a different way to add excitement.

Metropolitan DivisionAtlantic DivisionCentral DivisionPacific Division
Alex Ovechkin (WSH)Auston Matthews (TOR)Pierre-Luc Dubois (WPG)Timo Meier (SJS)
Evan Rodrigues (PIT)John Tavares (TOR)Kyle Connor (WPG)Connor McDavid (EDM)
Sebastian Aho (CAR)Michael Bunting (TOR)Nikolaj Ehlers (WPG)Matthew Tkachuk (CGY)
Jake Guentzel (PIT)Dylan Larkin (DET)Roope Hintz (DAL)Blake Coleman (CGY)
Cam Atkinson (CBJ)William Nylander (TOR)Vladimir Tarasenko (STL)Adrian Kempe (LAK)
Dougie Hamilton (CAR)Thomas Chabot (OTT)Roman Josi (NSH)Shea Theodore(VGK)
Zach Werenski (CBJ)MacKenzie Weegar (FLA)Miro Heiskanen (DAL)Alex Pietrangelo (VGK)
Brady Skjei (CAR)Aaron Ekblad (FLA)Seth Jones (CHI)Darnell Nurse (EDM)

Expected goals for is interested, as it much more skewed towards two-way drivers. It includes players like Michael Bunting, Blake Coleman, and Darnell Nurse, while excluding some obvious All Stars like Leon Draisaitl, Artemi Panarin, and anyone from the back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions Tampa Bay Lightning.

This would likely lead to a more balanced view of the game, while also highlighting some of the less well-known stars in the game like Miro Heiskanen, MacKenzie Weegar, and Roope Hintz. These are players who are stars in their own markets but are less well known to the rest of the league. If the objective is to develop more household names across the league, this may be a way to do it.

Goals Above Replacement

As a metric, goals above replacement attempts to evaluate the individual impact of a player on their team’s performance. This model provides a comprehensive way of looking at the role of a single individual has on their team’s success. Just as with each of the other ways of selecting players, this model produces a very different list than some of the others, particularly on the blueline.

Metropolitan DivisionAtlantic DivisionCentral DivisionPacific Division
Evan Rodrigues (PIT)Auston Matthews (TOR)Mikko Rantanen (COL)Timo Meier (SJS)
Cam Atkinson (PHI)Alexander Kerfoot (TOR)Nazem Kadri (COL)Connor McDavid (EDM)
Alex Ovechkin (WSH)David Pastrnak (BOS)Joe Pavelski (DAL)Elias Lindholm (CGY)
Seth Jarvis (CAR)Brad Marchand (BOS)Jason Robertson (DAL)Leon Draisaitl (EDM)
Nino Niederreiter (CAR)Steven Stamkos (TBL)Pavel Buchnevich (STL)Conor Garland (VAN)
Nick Jensen (WSH)Aaron Ekblad (FLA)Torey Krug (STL)Zach Whitecloud (VGK)
Adam Fox (NYR)Morgan Rielly (TOR)Roman Josi (NSH)Devon Toews (COL)
Ryan Lindgren (NYR)Thomas Chabot (OTT)Miro Heiskanen (DAL)Oliver Kylington (CGY)

This would make for another very fun All-Star experience, and would allow the league to highlight a nice mix of established superstars like Connor McDavid and Alex Ovechkin, but also introduce players like Oliver Kylington, Zach Whitecloud, Ryan Lindgren, and others to the broader fanbase.

All-Star Goaltenders

Finally, goaltenders had a slight change to their selection metrics: save percentage, goals saved above expected, and wins above replacement (with all goalie data from MoneyPuck.com). The netminders were then sorted by division so that each got two goalies. What is interesting is that all three metrics yielded the same eight goaltenders.

Metropolitan DivisionAtlantic DivisionCentral DivisionPacific Division
Igor Shesterkin (NYR)Jack Campbell (TOR)Juuse Saros (NSH)Jacob Markstrom (CGY)
Tristan Jarry (PIT)Andrei Vasilevskiy (TBL)Connor Hellebuyck (WPG)Jonathan Quick (LAK)

No matter which way you look at it, these should be the eight netminders at the All-Star Game this season. While there are some doubts about the health of Jacob Markstrom, it is incredible that five of the eight netminders were not selected at all.

What does it all mean

There are a number of players who by any metric deserve a spot at the game and simply will not get one. This does a disservice to their performances this season, and takes away from the meaning of the term All-Star. Nathan MacKinnon was not wrong when he called this selection “silly” and “not a participation game.” This honour matters to players, and including those who have not earned a spot devalues it.

The crux of the issue is that the NHL does not do a good enough job marketing their star players. Instead, it relies on a collective effort to engage all of its fan bases by including players from each team, and while this strategy is great for fans on struggling teams, it further expounds a structural issue within the NHL: fans are bought into their own teams as opposed to the league and stars themselves.

The All-Star Game is a great way to begin working to change this. It is a chance to showcase the diversity of opinions, backgrounds, and styles of players from across the league, as well as show-off the incredible on-ice product that is the NHL hockey game. By not including the best players, the league is missing out on this opportunity to really grow the game both in North America and around the world, and to celebrate the incredible accomplishments of their best and brightest stars.

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