As President Barack Obama once said: Phil Kessel is a Stanley Cup champion. What he’s not, inexplicably, is a 2018 NHL All-Star.
Kessel was, perhaps, the most prominent snub when the rosters were announced on Wednesday, with Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Sidney Crosby getting the nod instead at forward. Kessel leads the Penguins in goals (18) and points (47) and even tops Crosby in points per game (1.07). He’s been demonstrably the best player on the Penguins this season. Yet not only did Crosby get in ahead of him, so did defenseman Kris Letang, who is 13th among NHL defensemen in scoring.
So what is this? Long-game punishment for Kessel tweeting snarky things about the World Cup of Hockey in 2016? Some twisted “Black Mirror” scenario in which Crosby, who has dutifully avoided the All-Star Game throughout his career and recently said “I don’t expect to be going” because Kessel was so good in the first half, is now forced to attend or pull out of the event? I mean, isn’t it bad enough that Crosby owns Kessel’s 2016 Conn Smythe? Now he gets his All-Star Game spot, too?
The other two most egregious snubs were in the Pacific Division. Vegas Golden Knights center Jonathan Marchessault has 40 points in 38 games and is driving one of the best lines in hockey, which also features William “Wild Bill” Karlsson and his team-leading 22 goals. But the Vegas pick at forward is … James Neal? Look, clearly this isn’t a meritocracy, but outside of Neal’s appeal to Penguins and Nashville Predators fans there’s no reason why he gets the nod over either of these guys. And unlike Neal, we’re pretty certain Marchessault and Karlsson will be with the team next season …
The other snub of note also involves the Golden Knights: On what plane of reality does Marc-Andre Fleury, who has all of 14 starts during an injury-shortened first half, an All-Star Game selection over John Gibson, who has 33 starts and a .923 save percentage? Did Gibson hurt his back carrying the underwhelming husk of the Anaheim Ducks to within a sniff of the wild card?
But hey, Fleury’s a better quote than Gibson. And like Neal, will have other markets beyond his current one cheering for him.
Emily Kaplan: The St. Louis Blues have dropped off lately. They’ve lost 10 of their past 15 and no longer lead the Central Division, which they dominated for the first two months of the season. But they’re still in playoff contention, they’re still a dangerous team and they still have one of the league’s most elite talents in Vladimir Tarasenko. I am stunned he was left off the Central Division’s roster. The Blues did have two representatives in Brayden Schenn and Alex Pietrangelo. I don’t want to take anything away from the terrific season Schenn is having — reviving his career after a trade from the Philadelphia Flyers. Pietrangelo, too, deserves the recognition. As a Central Division goalie told me last month: “I don’t think [Pietrangelo] gets enough press for how big of a role he plays for that team. He’s a great defenseman. Obviously, I think people talk about him and what he’s doing offensively, and people get too into his offensive numbers. But your first job is to play defense, and he does it just about as good as anyone in the league.”
That quote from a piece about the NHL’s most underrated stars. Tarasenko is on a different plane. He’s a superstar.
The league clearly is looking for starpower in this event — choosing, as Greg noted, Crosby over Kessel; Fleury; Neal over his two younger (and more productive teammates) in Marchessault and Karlsson; and Mike Green over the Detroit Red Wings’ two younger and arguably more valuable players in Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha. Tarasenko should hold the same celebrity weight as Crosby, in my opinion. But the difference is, the Russian winger actually deserves to go.
If I’m an opposing coach, I’m terrified of Tarasenko every time he’s on the ice. I hate to make this a Schenn versus Tarasenko debate. They have nearly identical stats — 44 points through 46 games, while Tarasenko slightly edges Schenn in average ice time (19:50 versus 19:34). Tarasenko does lead the Blues in goals (19). Minnesota Wild center Eric Staal is likely the player I’d replace (since he’s 41st in the league, with 37 points). Now it’s moot, but it’s a shame that a player of Tarasenko’s caliber will have to watch at home.
Ben Arledge: Listen, Kessel and Tarasenko are, hands-down, the biggest snubs, as Greg and Emily mentioned. There’s also definitely an argument that Sean Couturier or Jakub Voracek should have made it from the Philadelphia Flyers, or that Sergei Bobrovsky, Gibson or Devan Dubnyk could have earned spots in the net in Tampa. My biggest issue, however, aside from Kessel and Tarasenko, is with the Metropolitan Division defense selections.
Washington Capitals blueliner John Carlson, Philly’s Shayne Gostisbehere and Columbus Blue Jackets youngster Zach Werenski all made convincing cases for All-Star roster spots. They were snubbed in favor of Noah Hanifin, Seth Jones and Kris Letang. Carlson’s 34 points trail only Dallas’ John Klingberg among all defensemen, while Gostisbehere is fourth with 32 — 18 of which came on the power play. Additionally, Carlson is fourth in the NHL in average ice time, with 26:17. Meanwhile, Werenski, just 20 years old, is pacing NHL defensemen in goals, with 11. It’s a loaded division, but that is some serious talent left off the list.
I can see the case for Jones over Werenski for Columbus, and someone had to go from the Carolina Hurricanes (Hanifin is having a decent season with 21 points), but leaving both Carlson and Gostisbehere off in favor of Letang makes little sense. We’ll get to hear Pierre McGuire refer to him as “Kristopher” for the entire broadcast, but it also means two dominant first-half defensemen stay home.