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NHL's All-Star game is missing its top All-Stars

| Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012

When the NHL hatched the plan for an All-Star game draft, it seemed like a can't-miss way to generate buzz for the weekend.

Who would you pick first if starting a team from scratch?

Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby• Washington's Alex Ovechkin• Chicago's Jonathan Toews• Maybe Edmonton rookie sensation Ryan Nugent-Hopkins• Surely, they'd go 1-2-3 in some order.

The suspense was guessing where the MVPs and Stanley Cup champs would go.

Time to dig deeper in the roster for that No. 1 pick.

The draft has turned into pure fantasy for this weekend's game in Ottawa. With none of those four players available, the All-Star game has turned into the Missing Stars game, extracting some of the fun out of the showcase weekend. Injuries are the main culprit for the All-Star withdrawals, though Ovechkin pulled out this week because the game fell during his league-issued three-game suspension.

The league banked on Crosby and Ovechkin years ago to lead them into great popularity and higher TV ratings well into this decade. For this season, at least, All-Star weekend goes on without them.

And without them, the league is hoping the lure of the draft is enough to attract some eyeballs to the product on a weekend without the NFL playoffs.

Crosby and Ovechkin are the type of players fans pay to watch. Home or away, regular season or playoffs, they've attracted the attention of the casual fans and helped revitalize the NHL after losing the 2004-05 season because of labor issues.

Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin and Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk might be the best players in the NHL. Yet, when they're picked Thursday night, the casual fan watching at a sports bar or reading the AP recap on a website would be more apt to ask, "Who?" instead of saying, "Wow."

Red Wings All-Star goalie Jimmy Howard knows who he would select.

"Pav. He's the best player in the world, that's why," he said. "There's no reason why he shouldn't be first."

Datsyuk has 14 goals and 53 points, and keyed Detroit's run to the top of the Western Conference.

Those numbers might not be enough to make him the No. 1 pick — and statistics aren't the reason.

This is the second straight season the All-Stars are divided in two teams not based on conference or nationality.

Team Alfredsson, led by Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson and his assistant, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, takes on Team Chara, featuring Boston captain Zdeno Chara and his assistant, forward Joffrey Lupul of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

A coin toss will decide the first pick, with Alfredsson and Chara, joined by their assistants, alternately drafting the 38 remaining All-Stars through 19 rounds. Each team has three goaltenders, six defensemen and 12 forwards. Each team's three goalies must be picked by the end of Round 10 and each team's six defensemen must be picked through Round 15.

Alfredsson has stated he would pick his teammate, 21-year-old defenseman Erik Karlsson, to kick off his selections. The Senators are well represented with five All-Stars.

"My kids would be disappointed if I didn't pick Erik, and he's a pretty good player," Alfredsson told reporters after he was named captain.

Chara hasn't tipped his hand, but has Bruins teammates Tyler Seguin and Tim Thomas to choose from, though neither are a likely first pick. Chara's in an interesting spot. He's played for Ottawa and could endear himself to his former fans by picking — and dividing — the Senators. Or he could follow Alfredsson's lead and draft one of his Stanley Cup-champion teammates, like Thomas.

Thomas is expected to show up days after causing a stir by skipping Boston's trip to the White House for President Barack Obama's salute to the champs. He skipped out of protest because he believes the federal government "has grown out of control" and threatens rights and liberties.

Ovechkin also created some minor controversy when he decided this week to pass on the All-Star game because he didn't want to serve as a distraction for playing while serving a suspension.

"My heart is not there. I got suspended, so why (do) I have to go there?" the two-time league MVP said Tuesday. "I love the (All-Star) game. It's a great event. I love to be there."

So would his fellow missing stars.

Crosby has missed most of this season because of concussion-like symptoms that have limited him to eight games over the last 12 months. Toews, who has 27 goals and 23 assists in 49 games, is out with a wrist injury. Nugent-Hopkins, the rookie star center for the Oilers, is out with a left shoulder injury.

The best part of draft night is the guilty pleasure that comes with seeing who's picked last and earns the NFL equivalent of the "Mr. Irrelevant" title.

A year ago, Toronto forward Phil Kessel could only watch while every other player was picked ahead of him. Then, as he sat alone, Ovechkin pulled out a cell phone and snapped a photo of Kessel.

His dubious honor wasn't a total loss. Kessel received a car and a donation was made in his name to a charity of his choice.

Eric Staal, who captained a team last season, said some players had told him they didn't want to go last.

The prize was enough to make some players feel last pick isn't the worst pick.

"It doesn't matter. You're there and at the game," Sabres forward Jason Pominville said. "But I think you get a car out of it. It gets a lot of attention and stuff."

He's right, of course, it doesn't matter where he's picked as long as he's there.

For Crosby and Toews and the rest of the injured stars, they'll have to wait 'til next year.

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