By Allan Muir
The 2013 NHL All-Star Game was a casualty of the lockout, but as the season nears the midway point, that doesn’t mean we can’t play a little game of “what if” — as in “what players would have earned a trip to fabulous Columbus if hockey’s ultimate schmoozefest had only be delayed a few weeks instead of being punted to 2015?”
Yeah, assembling a make-believe lineup card like this is a bit of a bear trap. For as little meaning as the game itself carries, the rosters always generate a wholly unsupported level of controversy. We care about who goes a lot more than most of the players do (hey, a four-day weekend in a place of their choosing sounds pretty sweet to those guys right about this time of year). But it’s that passion for our personal favorites that makes putting this list together — and then having it ripped apart — so much fun.
Just to make it interesting, I decided that every team required representation. That means a few worthy players were left off the roster to make room for others whose place seems a little more charitable than earned.
See an obvious snub? Feel free to blast away in the comment section below.
We’ll start today with the Eastern Conference. Check back Wednesday for the West.
Sidney Crosby, Penguins — Due to the shortened season, we won’t get to see how Crosby’s amazing campaign would play out over a full 82-game schedule. He’s on pace for 128 points, which would be the NHL’s best offensive output since Mario Lemieux posted 161 in 1995-96.
Nazem Kadri, Maple Leafs – Can we all just agree that Don Cherry was right about this kid?
Ilya Kovalchuk, Devils — It doesn’t just seem that Kovalchuk is always on the ice. He practically is. He’s averaging nearly 26 minutes per game, three minutes more than runner-up Steven Stamkos.
Chris Kunitz, Penguins — Every year there’s a guy who gets the call on the basis on an unexpectedly strong first half (hello, Yanic Perreault!). Kunitz is so hot that he could challenge his personal bests of 26 goals and 61 points despite being limited to 48 games.
Andrew Ladd, Jets — Quietly putting together a dominant season. No captain has scored more goals than Ladd.
Rick Nash, Rangers — An explosive one-on-one player, Nash has been a rare bright spot in a so-far disappointing season for the Blueshirts.
Mike Ribeiro, Capitals — When Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom stumbled out of the blocks, newcomer Ribeiro was there to power Washington’s offense with his slick playmaking.
Eric Staal, Hurricanes — Staal has consigned the memories of his disastrous 2011-12 season to the dustbin with a strong start to 2013. Playing with a high-skill linemate in Alex Semin has brought him back to form.
Steven Stamkos, Lightning – The league’s leading goal scorer has a shooting percentage of 20.5, the highest of his career.
Thomas Vanek, Sabres — Revitalized by the chance to play in Austria during the lockout, Vanek got off to a sensational start that was slowed only recently by an upper body injury.
John Tavares, Islanders — You can drop the “promising” adjective from descriptions of Tavares. He’s arrived as one of the game’s truly elite stars.
Jakub Voracek, Flyers — Like Kunitz, Voracek is on pace to set new personal bests despite the abbreviated schedule. He’s been Philadelphia’s best and most consistent forward. (KWAK: Voracek can’t play hoops, but emerges as spark)
Dustin Byfuglien, Jets — He won a toss-up for the final spot by virtue of his improving mental game. He’s making smarter decisions, especially when it comes to picking his spots to join the rush, and that’s making him more effective at both ends of the ice.
Brian Campbell, Panthers — Florida needed a rep, and he’s the best choice. Campbell is eating a ton of minutes and is tied for the team lead in scoring. We’ll just agree to overlook that minus-12…
Zdeno Chara, Bruins — He hasn’t yet lived up to his own lofty standard for excellence, but that means he’s better than just 95 percent of the defensemen out there.
Victor Hedman, Lightning — Already an imposing presence in his own end, Hedman’s maturing offensive game pushes him into the class of elite, two-way defenders.
Kris Letang, Penguins — He’s taken a page out of Erik Karlsson’s book, proving that a good offense is the best defense. He’s averaging a point per game while keeping the puck as far from his own zone as possible.
Andrei Markov, Canadiens — He’s slowed down since his hot start, but he’s still a difference-maker for the conference leaders.
Craig Anderson, Senators — Just because the Sens keep winning without him (and Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza) doesn’t mean he’s not a legitimate MVP candidate. When healthy, he’s hockey best stopper.
Carey Price, Canadiens — His numbers aren’t dazzling … except the one that really counts: wins. He always seems to make the stop when the Habs need it the most.
Tuukka Rask, Bruins — Calm and fully focused, he’s turned Tim Thomas into a distant memory with a Vezina-worthy performance in Boston.
Evgeni Malkin, F, Penguins — He’s been good, but he gets the nod here on star power more than anything.
Brad Marchand, F, Bruins — Yeah, he’s a flopper, but his net drive, grit and timely goal scoring (he has four game-winners) have been key to Boston’s hot start.
Justin Faulk, D, Hurricanes — Quietly excelling while carrying the load for Carolina in just his second season.
James Reimer, G, Maple Leafs — Guess Brian Burke knew what he was doing, eh?