Thursday, January 22, 2015

The "everything wrong with the all-star game" fantasy draft

The NHL kicks off its annual (usually) All-Star Weekend tomorrow, as the league’s best players (sort of) head to Columbus for three days of events that will show off the best the sport has to offer (not really).

But while Saturday’s skills competition and Sunday’s All-Star Game will have their moments, the highlight of the weekend will probably be tomorrow’s fantasy draft. That’s the relatively new concept, introduced in 2011, that sees the players themselves draft the teams. It’s a great idea, since stolen by other leagues, and it’s almost guaranteed to provide some fun.

Does the fantasy draft include a bunch of unnecessary rules about when certain positions can be picked that just makes the whole thing overly complicated? Sure. Is there a history of the players ruining half the fun by giving away the top picks in advance? Of course. Look, we never said that the draft was perfect. But it’s still the best thing that NHL All-Star Weekend has going for it.

And that’s why we’re going to steal the concept. Just like All-Star Weekend has become a tradition, columns complaining about All-Star Weekend have too. The fantasy draft helped breathe new life into the All-Star concept; maybe it can do the same for this post. It’s worth a shot.

So please welcome our two participants for today’s event: Team Apathy and Team Absurdity. They’ll alternate picks as they draft their way through the myriad ways that the NHL has screwed up the All-Star Game over the years.

We flipped a coin before the event, but before it could hit the ground Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr started fighting over it. So we’ll just let Team Absurdity have the first pick, because Team Apathy shrugged and said it didn’t really care.

Let’s go to the podium for the first pick.

With the first overall pick, Team Absurdity selects: The one-player-per-team rule, which screws up the rosters

For most of its history, the All-Star Game has specified that each team must be represented by at least one player. That rule occasionally resulted in picks that were outright ridiculous, but it made sense in a big-picture way. If you want fans from around the league to tune in, you make sure there’s a player from the home team to cheer for.

So the rule mostly worked … back when there were 21 teams. With 40 (and later 42) roster spots up for grabs, that still left plenty of room to make sure all the top players had a spot and allowed the top teams to be well represented. You didn’t have to be a die-hard fan to scan down the All-Star rosters and think, Wow, the Oilers are a powerhouse, or, Yikes, the Penguins must be stacked.

These days, we’ve got 30 teams, which doesn’t leave much room to work with once all the mandatory slots have been filled. In theory, you’d still have a dozen spots to play with, which should be workable. But these days, one team is going to stuff the ballot boxes and elect too many guys, and the team that’s hosting always ends up with way too many players selected (more on both of those problems in a bit). This year, the league ended up having just six extra roster spots to cover the entire league. That’s ridiculous.

Inevitably, that leads to players who absolutely should be part of the event getting passed over. We won’t rehash the whole list here, since the specific players involved are beside the point. This isn’t some sort of fluke of the 2015 game. It’s going to happen every year, because the system makes it inevitable.

The reality is that not every team has a player who deserves to be an All-Star. Sometimes that’s due to injury. Sometimes a team is especially well balanced and doesn’t have one guy who stands out. And some teams are just plain bad. It doesn’t do us any good to pretend that teams like this year’s Hurricanes and Oilers have legitimate All-Stars. They don’t.

Here’s what the league should do: Try really hard to cover as many teams as possible, while keeping the focus on making sure that the game’s biggest stars are included. And surprisingly, that’s exactly that it did … for a while. In 2011 and 2012, the league dropped the requirement that every team be represented in the All-Star Game, wisely using the skills-competition rookie teams to cover any teams that were snubbed. But this year, the league went back to the old rules. It was the wrong call.

And yes, the whole thing gets back to marketing and wanting to make sure that fans of, say, Carolina have somebody to root for. But the league has lost sight of the big picture. If your marketing strategy involves showcasing Justin Faulk over P.K. Subban, your marketing strategy is broken.

With the second pick, Team Apathy is proud to select: Players who don’t want to be there

In theory, being picked to play in an NHL All-Star Game should be considered an honor, one a player would view as a boost to his legacy and a confirmation of his status as one of the game’s top names. That’s the idealized version of how this should play out, and there was probably a time when that was true, but those days are long gone.

Today, many players treat an All-Star nod as a bothersome inconvenience, one that ruins a midseason weekend off. After all, everyone is banged up by this time of year, and given how little the modern-day All-Star Game means, players probably would prefer a few days on a beach to participating in a tedious corporate shill-fest.

So it wasn’t a surprise when players started skipping the game in recent years, usually citing minor injuries. The situation came to a head in 2009, when the league announced that it would suspend players for skipping the All-Star Game unless they had also missed regular-season time. Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom were forced to sit out a game as a result.

But extra rest isn’t the only reason that star players have tried to skip the event. Sidney Crosby once reportedly threatened to skip the game in protest of the league’s refusal to crack down on dangerous hits. Alexander Ovechkin pulled out because he was mad about being suspended.

Other players have opted for a subtler approach, with respected veterans using behind-the-scenes channels to suggest to the league that they’d prefer not to be picked. Teemu Selanne went that route in 2012, as did Lidstrom, and there are rumors that Jaromir Jagr may have done the same for this year’s game (a charge he halfheartedly denied).

Everyone likes to get a little time off, so it’s hard to blame the players too much here. But fans who are expected to buy into the All-Star Game as some sort of prestigious event might find it hard not to notice that the actual players seem to view it as a mere annoyance.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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