NHL All-Star draft: What worked, and what didn’t, from a fan perspective

TORONTO — The NHL held its first All-Star Game fantasy draft since 2015 on Thursday night, bringing back a concept that felt fresh and unique when it debuted in 2011 but then disappeared entirely within a few years.

So… did it work?

Sort of. Some of it definitely did. And other areas could still use some work. The NHL, to its credit, went out of its comfort zone to bring back the draft, and they made some tweaks to make it more palatable to everyone involved. That includes the players, the TV partners and the marketing types. I’m not any of those things, though, and you probably aren’t either, so we don’t care about what they may have wanted. Instead, let’s come at this from a fan’s point of view.

What worked, and what didn’t? Or, to keep with the drafting theme, what aspects were worth a pick, and which ones should have been passed on? After witnessing the whole thing in person, here’s my list.

Pick: Bringing back the draft at all

Let’s start here, even if it’s only stating the obvious. All-Star weekend is way more fun with a player draft, and while some of the concerns about the approach may have been valid, that wasn’t a reason to ditch it entirely. The league did the right thing here, so we’ll start with that.

Pick: Having some suspense about the first picks … mostly

The first All-Star draft was held in Carolina in 2011, and the first pick went to Eric Staal. Would he take Sidney Crosby? Alexander Ovechkin? No, you dummy, he just picked his teammate, Cam Ward. The local fans loved it, and everyone else went “oh.”

In 2012, in Ottawa, Daniel Alfredsson announced in advance that he’d just take teammate Erik Karlsson with his first pick. And in 2015, all-star captain Nick Foligno — yes, that was a real thing — did pretty much the same thing, picking Ryan Johansen. So there was no suspense, but at least the picks were also extremely boring.

This time, we made it to draft night without anyone spoiling anything, largely because we didn’t know which of the four teams would be picking first. It ended up being the Hughes brothers team, and they passed on any of the half-dozen available Devils or Canucks and instead took MVP candidate Nikita Kucherov. That was a real pick, one that gave fans something to genuinely chew on, the way this was meant to be.

Not so much the Auston Matthews/Morgan Rielly/Justin Bieber combo, who just went all Leafs at the top of the board. But the Oilers duo couldn’t do that, and the Avs chose not to. Three out of four ain’t bad.

Pass: No last pick

There are two things we know about NHL players. First, they’re warriors, the absolute toughest athletes on earth, grizzled ruffians who’ll crawl through broken glass to win a game, and who’ll happily throw themselves in front of 100 mph slap shots with no thought to their own safety. They are merciless. They are brutal. They are relentless.

Also, it is incredibly easy to hurt their feelings, and they cannot be expected to function if they have a case of the frownies.

That’s why you can’t celebrate a goal too much if you score against them, or use any fancy moves that might make someone look bad. And it’s apparently why we had to come up with a way to have an All-Star draft without a last pick, doing a confusing random assignment thing instead

The league snuck in that detail when they announced the return of the draft. Hey, if the players said this was a deal-breaker, then I’m not sure what else you could do. But yeah, this would have been more fun with a last pick, even if it would have been awkward for somebody for a minute or two.

Also, the rules around goalies meant that we did have a goalie get stuck with “last pick” honors: Cam Talbot. Actually, that needs its own section…

Pass: Overly complicated rules

Despite having nine years to think about it, the NHL decided to keep its needlessly complicated rules about which positions had to be taken when. Inevitably, this blew up on them when Team Hughes forgot they needed to take a goalie in the seventh round and tried to take Brock Boeser instead. That meant that host David Amber had to jump in and force them to redo it, bringing some real “teacher forgot to assign the homework” energy to the proceeding.

Free advice to the NHL: The answer here is simple. Just let them take whomever they want. And I mean whomever they want — if one team wants to take all the goalies, let them. Are you telling me you wouldn’t tune in on Saturday if you knew a team of eight goalies was going to be shooting on a frightened Elias Pettersson? You absolutely would.

Pick? Pass? Maybe somehow both?: Thomas Hertl wearing his own jersey to media day hour

OK, “hour” isn’t really accurate – it was more like 45 minutes. Still, I’m vaguely fascinated by Hertl showing up wearing a No. 48 Sharks jersey while everyone else was dressing casual. Sergei Bobrovsky rocked a toque. William Nylander said his suit arrived just as he was getting into an Uber ride that day. Mitch Marner had a sweater that was apparently from some famous designer I’m too old to have heard of. Hertl just wore his own jersey. I was flummoxed.

Still am, if I’m being honest. Somebody explain this to me. I may not sleep tonight.

Pick, mostly: Doing it all in front of a live crowd

The whole thing played out on the ice at Scotiabank Arena, and most of the seats were dutifully occupied. I think that’s the way to do this — the fans bring a certain energy to the proceedings, at least in theory.

Did the Toronto crowd play their role? Mostly, sure. They certainly weren’t loud, despite the PA guy begging them to make noise every time we were about to come back from commercial. But really, how much could you expect? The crowd certainly didn’t match the memorable scene in Ottawa in 2012, when the crowd had been significantly, um, over-served and booed everyone. But they seemed to have fun, so sure, keep the crowd.

Pass: The weird start time

Getting all of the NHL’s biggest stars onto one stage, along with some celebrities, feels like the sort of thing you’d want to do in prime time, no?

Apparently not, as the draft wrapped up by 7 p.m. ET. It wasn’t hard to figure out why — the league wanted some of that sweet ESPN exposure, and they weren’t going to bump college basketball off the schedule to do it. They took what they could get, and it was the right move. But here’s hoping that next time, there’s enough buzz around the event to get it into a better time slot, at least for the eastern markets, since they’re the only ones that matter.

That said, we probably have ESPN to thank for…

Pick: The whole thing being done in an hour

Hell yeah. The NHL’s instinct with this sort of thing always seems to be to stretch it out as long as possible, which just means a bunch of awkward interviews that seem to drag on forever. We did get a little of that, but it was only a little, because the whole thing had to wrap in an hour. And it did. If you’ve ever tried to get your fantasy football draft moving, you know it’s not easy.

Pick: Having celebrity captains

This one falls into the category of “so obvious it’s surprising they hadn’t already been doing it”.

Hockey players are good at a lot of things. Virtually everything on that list involves playing hockey. When it comes to anything else — such as being funny, or quick-witted, or displaying any personality whatsoever — they tend to struggle. We’ve all known this forever.

So what do you do when you have a made-for-TV event built around these guys? In past years, the answer was to liquor them up and hope for the best, and it’s fair to say the results were mixed. This time, somebody came up with the idea of getting famous people who didn’t roll a 1 on their charisma check to tag in. That person is a hero.

Did it all work? No, of course not. Justin Bieber was too cool to even stand up, let alone do anything interesting. (And then he hilariously no-showed the post-draft media session, which broke more than a few hearts in press row.) But it was far better than it would have been if we’d been counting on Cale Makar’s comedic timing to carry the day. And yes, the NHL even managed to find actual famous people to pass off as celebrities. This has not always been league policy.

Special shoutout to Will Arnett, who was the best of the bunch. Probably because he’s so used to hanging out with hockey royalty.

Also… a special thanks to mushrooms, apparently.

Pick: “Sam” Bobrovsky

Sorry, when the best player in the world messes up your name in front of the world, it’s legally binding. Your name is Sam now.

Pass: Those live mics

Look, I get what they were going for here. Keep everyone’s mic on, and maybe you’d pick up some fun strategizing or even trash talk. But they didn’t really commit to it, and the players quickly figured out they could just cover their mics if they had anything interesting to say.

The whole thing ended up just being like half-overhearing a conversation you’re not sure you’re supposed to be listening to. Or, as my press-box neighbor Steve Dangle put it, another chance to play a fun game of, “Wait, is the NHL doing this on purpose?” They were. Next time, they shouldn’t bother.

Pick: They at least seemed to think about pulling off a trade

It didn’t happen, but Team Hughes did have a couple of delegates wander over and start chatting with Team MacKinnon. It didn’t go anywhere, but hey, they at least sort of considered maybe at least trying. Remember everyone, it’s the NHL, trading is just really hard.

And finally, the big one…

Pass: Nobody was drunk

Boo this league!

(Photo of Morgan Rielly, Auston Matthews, Justin Bieber and Mitch Marner: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)

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