NHL All-Star Game Voting A Popularity Contest, Once Again

Written by Brian McCormack on .

Senators' Fans Got Out the Vote

In a weekend that is meant to showcase the NHL's brightest stars, the home-town Ottawa Senators will be very well represented. Four of the six balloted positions will belong to an Ottawa team that has won seven of ten, yet only holds a playoff spot in the East by two points, and who have played at least one more game than every other team in the conference except Montreal and Carolina.

Of the Senators headed to All-Star weekend, defenseman Erik Karlsson's election should go undisputed. In only his third season, Karlsson, the leading vote receiver, leads all defenseman in points with 37. He is also second among all skaters with 32 assists, matching his total from all of last season, and holds a plus-1 rating while averaging over 25 minutes a night for a team with a goal differential of -12. Impressive.

But as we move down the list, the names get more questionable. Second in voting was team captain Daniel Alfredsson, whose 28 points have him well ahead of last season's pace of 31 points in 54 games, but still places him 67th in scoring. In perhaps his final season at 39 in a recently injury-tested, perhaps it is a well-deserved final kudos to one of Ottawa's few future legends. We'll consider that.

Jason Spezza, eleventh in scoring and averaging a point per game, is perhaps the best forward candidate for the Senators, despite his disappointing performance the last few years, not cracking the 60 point mark since '08-'09. Spezza has been on the hot seat and under a microscope for the last two years, particularly last year in failing to replace the production of an ailing Alfredsson.

Milan Michalek is rebounding from his disappointing season last year with 19 goals to this point, sixth in the league. Yet his 26 points, 78th in the NHL, are certainly underwhelming for an All-Star starter.

The two non-Senators able to sneak through the balloting process were Bruin's goaltender Tim Thomas, last year's Vezina and Conn Smythe winner, who won by 130 thousand votes, and Toronto  Dion Phaneuf, who beat third place challenger (shocker!!) Sergei Gonchar by only eleven thousand votes. Phaneuf is second in scoring among defenseman.

Notable names overlooked by the fans include the Sedin twins. Ranked in the top two for scoring (Henrik, then Daniel), the brothers were ranked 21st and 19th, respectively. Claude Giroux, the league's most dominant first half performer finished seventh, while one of the strongest Hart Trophy candidates in Jonathan Toews finished eighth.

Also glaring was the complete disregard for the Florida Panthers. The line of Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg, and Stephen Weiss, one of the games most dominant, is not represented in the top 50 forwards. Leading goal scorer among defenseman, Jason Garrison, did not make the ballot, and second leading-scoring defenseman Brian Campbell, enjoying a renaissance season, finished 20th.

Now obviously the first argument to rebuff those that believe the balloting is a joke need only point to the success of Canadian based players. Other noteworthy players not cracking the starting lineup include Toronto's Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, and a very good case could be made for either. Yet John Michael Liles receiving the seventh most votes among defensemen and James Reimer coming in second for goaltenders is hardly representative of the NHL talent class.

Notably, Toronto, the Seantors' Ontario counterpart, was the second most rigorous voting fan base to that of Ottawa.

These two fan bases got out the vote. They flooded the ballot boxes to see their teams represented in their home province. One could argue that anyone who wanted to see the results changed should have voted more. They had the opportunity. That is fact.

However, the ballot process that forces the NHLPA to decide the majority of an All-Star class that the fans themselves refused to recognize diminishes the integrity of an event that already competes with all other all-star contests in blandness and insignificance.

Also noteworthy is that this trend of home-town players dominating elections only occurs in Canadian markets. In Montreal in 2009, members of the Canadiens composed four starting spots, the other two belonging to Quebec native Vincent Lecavalier and Evgeni Malkin, who was in the midst of the most productive season of his career. Most glaring on the roster was Mike Komisarek, elected by an overwhelming fan campaign. Komisarek would finish the season with eleven points, and crack the top five of the league for only penalty minutes.

One unfortunate bi-product of such fan-driven voting is the under-cutting of truly strong performances by less recognizable performers. Players like Kyle Wellwood, Dan Girardi, and the Panthers mentioned, having noteworthy seasons for their teams, go under the radar because, as John Tortorella put it, "It's all about pedigree in this league." These players must rely on selection by the league. Even Jimmy Howard of the Red Wings, on pace for over 50 wins this season, could only place sixth as a write-in candidate.

Again, fans are responsible as voters to get their players into the game. But I will raise this one question for debate. Why do home-town campaigns only have such success in Canadian markets?

Obviously, the leading argument would be that those fans get out to vote because they care more about the game. But perhaps there's another angle to it.

In Carolina last year, no Hurricane was elected in the top six. Rather the players were members of the Blackhawks and Penguins, and arguably the best over the past year. Even Duncan Keith in a slumping season, could be argued to one of the game's best. In Atlanta in 2008, only one Thrasher made the starting lineup, Ilya Kovalchuk.

Is it possible to say that Canadians care more about the game in their city, that the people of Ottawa are more excited about this game than those in Atlanta or Raleigh? Of course it can. And it's probably correct.

But what about the idea that many Canadian fans identify more with their own team than with an NHL comprised predominantly of American Markets. Surely Canadian players like Giroux or Shea Weber could draw as much fan support as Milan Michalek, wouldn't you think?

Resentment for the "Bettman NHL" in Canada has been no secret through the years, as the Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets were removed from Canada, and only this year restored, while the game explored the reaches of the deserts and the Sunbelt. Meanwhile, hockey fans in Saskatoon, Hamilton, the Toronto metro area, and others yearn for a team while American markets struggle. And they still will have to compete for those teams with new markets like Kansas City, Las Vegas, Seattle, or perhaps a return to Hartford (only a recent grumbling).

Does such resentment filter into the All-Star weekend where fans look out for their own interests, their own markets, their own teams? Will a Canadian market never vote in a Giroux, a Thornton, a Stamkos? Do American fans better appreciate the league-wide talent of the NHL? It is, of course, speculation and probably far-fetched.

But I shudder to think what kind of an All-Star game we would see were it hosted by Calgary this season.

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