Roundtable: What is your favorite All-Star Game format?
Greg Wyshynski: The NHL All-Star Game has seen several different formats since the 1940s, beginning with the defending Stanley Cup champion taking on a group of all-stars from the league's other five teams. That's still a novel concept, but -- given the roster churn that occurs today thanks to the salary cap -- the defending champ could have 30 percent new players in the following season.
We've had conference vs. conference, North America vs. the World, the NHL fantasy draft and today's iteration, which features 3-on-3 hockey in a four-division mini-tournament. We've also had years where the NHL has dropped the All-Star Game altogether, in favor of a best-on-best tournament with the Russians.
What's my favorite All-Star Game format? That answer begins with what my requirements for an All-Star Game are: There needs to be some level of competitiveness to keep players engaged. The rosters should be built for entertainment first, merit second. And, without question, it needs to be returned to the fans so they're the ones who vote in these players.
(Before you bemoan the chicanery that comes with that, please note that the two most recent instances of fan-rigged votes -- the Montreal Canadiens in 2009 and John Scott in 2016 -- were undeniably successful with regard to the game's entertainment value.)
So here's my ideal format:
Keep the 3-on-3 mini-tournament, with the four divisional teams. The worst thing about all-star games, especially in contact sports, is that they try to look like actual games. So admit it's the circus and clown for a bit.
Allow fans to vote for each divisional team: Five forwards, two defensemen, two goalies. The leading vote getter in each division is the team captain. The team itself then gets to select one more forward and one more defenseman to join their happy little band, so we get just a little of that fantasy draft magic in this format, too.
And then, the most important part of the game: The winning team doesn't pay escrow for a season. NHL players had 15.5 percent of their salary withheld last season to ensure the owners hit their profit margins. They hate this, with the searing intensity of a thousand burning suns. Maybe they still get some sort of prize money for winning the All-Star Game, too, but the symbolic unshackling from escrow for a season would be incentive enough to have a heck of a tournament. Nothing motivates a player more than money and sticking it to Gary Bettman.
And there's my All-Star Game. What's yours, Emily?
Emily Kaplan: I must say, I do appreciate the history lesson! The defending champs vs. the world format intrigues me, perhaps not in spite of, but because of logistical concerns. Tell me you would not be entertained by Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury putting on the Pittsburgh Penguins' black and yellow one more time. Additional entertainment value: watching Pittsburgh collectively lose its mind if this exhibition team looks better than its current iteration (which it probably would). And perhaps this would be the only way we could get a deserving Phil Kessel to Tampa. But alas, I digress.
I agree with you, Greg, that the 3-on-3 format should absolutely stay. It's fun, it's fast, it's conducive to more scoring, and -- let's be honest -- nobody plays much defense in this game anyway.
I'd prefer a fantasy draft, a la gym-class kickball. Captains can be voted on by fans, as is status quo, then those captains snake-draft a team. Whoever has the most votes goes first, and so forth. (Don't feel too bad for the last man picked. [Insert NHL sponsor here] will either give him a car or donate $25,000 to the player's charity of choice). It makes the crafting of a team a bit of a spectacle -- another reason to tune in -- but could also create some neat opportunities for players. Maybe a guy picks someone he played youth hockey with or trains with in the offseason. Maybe someone snubs his teammate. Maybe we get a feisty matchup of Nikita Kucherov vs. Steven Stamkos on the boards. I'm having fun just thinking about it.
Chris Peters: I really like the thought process of my dear colleagues here, but I believe I have found the format that would inject some much-needed hype and attention at the All-Star Game. First off, like Greg, I am on Team 3-on-3 Tournament. I could be persuaded to see this go 4-on-4, but I think for the interest of time and because we have a format in place, 3-on-3 works. We keep the four teams as well, but I just don't see too many people out there who are die-hard Atlantic Division fans.
While I like Greg's idea of getting more player involvement with captain selections, I feel like the NHL could get more bang for its buck if it made this into an international event. I was in eighth grade the last time they tried North America vs. the World. That was fine, but it didn't give American fans a ton of natives to root for on the Original Team NA. That would be different now. But even so, why not take that idea and break it down even further?
Canada gets a team, obviously. The U.S. gets a team, obviously. Then you've got to get creative. I think an All-Sweden team would be lights out and totally fun. An All-Russia or All-Finland team could be quite compelling as well. It might get trickier the further you go down the list. So my thought is, if this is going to be an international event, the winner of the previous year's IIHF World Championship gets a team and then the other team is Team Europe. Now, if Canada or the U.S. wins the World Championship, you'd have to find an alternative way of selecting one national team. Canada has been on a decent run at that event over the past few years, but usually it's either Sweden, Russia or Finland.
Either way, I think this adds a more competitive element to the game, it doesn't have to be taken as seriously as the World Cup or Olympics or anything else in international hockey. But it's a good way to get some rooting interest into the game, it still involves all NHL teams and it helps make up for the lack of compelling best-on-best international tournaments, especially if the NHL never returns to the Olympics. Seeing these players represent their countries has been pretty great.
My less serious, but kind of serious alternative is a full game where Team North America from last year's World Cup of Hockey reunites annually to take on the league's best until all of those guys are 33 and then we cycle in a new one. I just really miss that team. It was so fun.
Ben Arledge: Seems like I'm in the minority here, but I say give me 4-on-4. In theory, 3-on-3 All-Star games are smart. As far as regular-season hockey goes, there's nothing more exciting than these overtime 3-on-3 frames. High-energy, fast-paced, wide-open hockey. The problem is that doesn't seem to translate to the All-Star Game. Instead, it just provides players with more space to play at half speed. There isn't much incentive in the All-Star game, and that's fine, but without that incentive, 3-on-3 just isn't as exciting.
This isn't the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins dueling for an ever-important extra point in a tight Metropolitan Division race. It's the world's best players playing with nothing on the line in a game with little-to-no defense and all the time and space in the world. Three-on-three hockey just doesn't fit that mold. Instead of the space allowing these guys to create, it breeds a lack of urgency with the puck and allows for an exorbitant amount of slow 2-on-0 rushes. It sounds fun, but it just isn't in this setting. Not at half-speed with very little defensive effort. The game should display the speed of these guys, but 3-on-3 just doesn't make them hit the burners. Instead of speeding everything up -- which is what happens in the regular-season overtime periods -- the pace is slowed.
Four-on-four would be a nice compromise between the 5-on-5 game and the wide-open 3-on-3 scheme. It gives the players some space, but not too much. It allows for some odd-man rushes and breakaways, but not every single play. And it reduces the number of plays in which a goalie is left out to dry (hey, they're in the game, too!).
Lastly, this division-based tournament style just doesn't do it for me. I admittedly was originally leaning toward a return to the North America vs. World two-team format that we saw years ago, but then I considered Chris' four-team international format. I hadn't really thought about that concept, but it sounds extremely fun. It might have even made me think twice about wanting to pivot back to a two-team game. After all, the best way to make a player care about the game is to throw him on the ice against his national rival. Who could forget the classic 2019 NHL All-Star Game, when Team USA's Auston Matthews beat Canada's Carey Price in the final minute to secure the win, or the 2020 game that featured Russia's Andrei Vasilevskiy making a miraculous breakaway save on Sweden's Filip Forsberg? That type of stuff would resonate. I'd be all in on that.
Victoria Matiash, Fantasy columnist: Frankly, I'm happy enough with the current four-team, mini-tournament. It may strike you as a tepid, lazy take -- what we have right now is just fine -- but it's genuine. The knockout element certainly adds some much-needed pizzazz. As Ben suggests, though, let's bump play to 4-on-4. Three-on-three competition is indeed exciting. Super fun! It also doesn't sufficiently resemble traditional NHL hockey for me -- even in the context of a 20-minute showcase game. Four-on-four serves as a reasonable compromise between pond shinny and the not-yet-forgotten drudgery of 5-on-5 All-Star Game "battles."
How the teams are curated matters most, in my mind. Fans, exclusively, should vote players in, with required consideration made for team representation. If the fans collectively gather a group of non-elite types, so be it. It's their event. As for assembling each team, Emily is bang-on with four captains -- elected via most fan votes, maybe? -- selecting their individual squads, turn by turn, in the old-school gymnasium style. For all her reasons listed. One amendment: Never mind the perceived need to placate the last guy sitting cross-legged on his lonesome. These are well-paid, grown men. They can suck it up. Donations to players' individual charities can otherwise be woven in throughout the weekend's events. I suggest well-publicized side bets between single players.
As for incentive to make (nearly) a real game of it, I adore Greg's proposal of eliminating a season's worth of escrow for the winning side. As he notes, the priceless reward of getting one over on the league, in addition to the extra cold cash, could inspire a noticeable increase in effort. Further to that, how about awarding an outside-the-box prize to the game's MVP? Say, next year's cover of EA Sports' NHL video game. Obviously, this pie-in-sky idea would require the cooperation of EA Sports, and goodness knows how many other hurdles to clear, but I'm just riffing here. Whatever offers these guys the extra kick in the pants to raise their effort level, which in turn gives hockey fans added reason to watch.