2008 NHL All-Star Musings

LOS ANGELES — While the National Hockey League is taking a break to showcase its best and brightest from the 2007-08 season during the NHL All-Star festivities starting Saturday in Atlanta, those of us who cover a particular NHL team all season long can take a much-needed break as well. But in my case, there are a few loose ends in my NHL notebook that need to be tied up first.

Clueless In Toronto

Those who follow the Los Angeles Kings have truly suffered this season with an under-achieving team—one that should at least be close to playoff contention.

But Kings fans should be thankful that they are not fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Despite the fact that the Leafs are six points better than the Kings in the league standings, the Kings are in much better shape as a franchise because they have a general manager with a vision who is calling the shots in terms of player personnel, while the Leafs, who just fired general manager John Ferguson, are run by a Board of Directors who have no apparent direction or philosophy.

Ferguson was the scapegoat for the board’s inefficiency, indecision, in-fighting and, in the final analysis, incompetency.

To be sure, the Leafs board is a laughing stock around the league.

Without question, it is time for the Leafs to scrap their Board of Directors. Until Leafs ownership figures out that this structure is destructive and will never allow them to reach the level of the elite teams in the league, they will remain among the NHL’s also-rans.

YoungStars Game: Worthless!

It is certainly nice to see the NHL’s rookies display their great skills during All-Star weekend. But could the YoungStars game be a bigger waste of time?

Just like last season, this year’s YoungStars game had absolutely no defense at all, players skating at half to maybe three-quarters speed and the majority of the goals came on breakaways and two-on-zero chances.

In short, the game could not be more unrealistic and clearly could not be more boring.

The regular All-Star Game, which has little defense or physical play, is already boring enough. The NHL really needs to fix the YoungStars game format, which is currently a complete joke.

Three More Years of Versus?

This past week, the NHL signed on for three more years on Versus, a channel that is not carried by a significant number of cable TV outlets and reaches a fraction of the homes and businesses that ESPN does.

Although it seemed like a good deal at the time, the way things have turned out since the lockout is that Versus has not helped the league gain much exposure and build their fan base because they simply are not available on enough televisions in the United States.

Despite that, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has sentenced the league to three more years of minimal television exposure when it needs the far greater exposure it would get on ESPN.

To be sure, the NHL is already suffering greatly by a lack of national television exposure in the United States. As painful as it will be (ESPN will not give the league a favorable deal), the NHL needs to bite the bullet and get themselves back on ESPN. They need to think of the move as a long-term investment that will pay off down the road.

Niedermayer An All-Star?

What mental midgets are responsible for the fact that Anaheim Ducks superstar defenseman Scott Niedermayer will be playing in the All-Star Game on January 26?

In the words of the late Howard Cosell, which were made famous here in the Los Angeles area by the late, great radio sportscaster Jim Healy, “who goofed, I’ve got to know?!”

NHL players who have earned the honor by performing at a high level and working hard throughout the 2007-08 season will be in Atlanta for the weekend’s festivities.

That is, all except for one player, Scott Niedermayer, who was named to the Western Conference All-Star team earlier this week.

A four-time Stanley Cup winner and a lock for the Hockey Hall of Fame as soon as he is eligible, Niedermayer was added to the team on January 23, even though he sat out the first two-and-a-half months of the season, returning to the Ducks on December 15.

To be sure, Niedermayer’s return has energized the Ducks, who are 12-5-2 since his return, and suddenly, they are contending for first place in the Pacific Division. Just one point out of the division lead, the Ducks could easily find themselves second in the Western Conference in short order instead of eighth place—their position in the standings just a couple of weeks ago.

Nevertheless, Niedermayer has played in just nineteen games this season, with two goals and nine assists good for eleven points and a -3 plus/minus rating.

In this particular case, Niedermayer’s goal and assist totals and his plus/minus rating are irrelevant. The glaring numbers are the fact that he has played in just nineteen games and that his season began almost three months after everyone else’s did.

In short, Niedermayer does not deserve the honor of being named to the Western Conference All-Star team.

Some have argued, “Who cares? It’s the All-Star Game. It’s not really much of a game anyway.”

Indeed, the All-Star Game is not much of a hockey game for reasons stated earlier. But that is not an excuse for giving undeserving players the honor of playing in the annual showcase.

Undoubtedly, Niedermayer has already established himself as one of the best defensemen ever to play the game. In fact, Ted Sobel, sports anchor for KFWB News 980 here in Los Angeles, told me that Niedermayer is the closest thing to Bobby Orr that he has ever seen.

Sobel is probably right. But that still does not justify Niedermayer’s selection to the All-Star team because that honor should be afforded only to players who exhibit a high level of performance, work ethic and leadership over the entire season.

Clearly, if Niedermayer really was a modern-day Bobby Orr, I would have no objection. But in this case, we’re talking close, but no cigar.

Some of you will note that I cover the Los Angeles Kings and may be questioning my objectivity and credibility here. You may be assuming that this rant is based on nothing more than favoritism towards the Kings and jealousy or worse aimed at the Ducks.

For those of you who may be thinking that, sorry. Wrong. Try again.

The fact is, the still-budding rivalry is great, but I never bought into the whole “Ducks vs. Kings” animosity, especially when it comes to Ducks fans and Kings fans criticizing or attacking each other, which is silly, contradictory and counter-productive (but that is for another op-ed piece). And let’s face it. The Ducks have a great team and just won the Stanley Cup last season, while the Kings still haven’t won the Cup in forty years of existence, they continue to swim in a pool of mediocrity, and no team has been worse this season, at least, not in the league standings.

Quite frankly, I would feel exactly the same way if Luc Robitaille, Rob Blake, Marcel Dionne or Rogie Vachon were in the same situation as Niedermayer. None would deserve the honor under the same circumstances, even though they were big stars in their own right and have made great contributions to their teams and to the NHL. The only exception I might make would be for Wayne Gretzky, and I think any hockey fan would understand giving The Great One the benefit of the doubt.

The bottom line: Scott Niedermayer is one of the NHL’s all-time greats and a future Hall of Famer. But nineteen games and a season that started almost three months after everyone else’s did does not an All-Star make.

As a postscript, the same reasons can be applied to those saying that Niedermayer deserves consideration for the Hart Memorial Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s Most Valuable Player. That is another honor that should be reserved only for players who are most valuable to their team from the start of the season, which begins in early October, not mid-December.

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