TAMPA — Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy were excited to receive their latest invitations to the All-Star Game on Thursday. But they’ll be even happier if Lightning teammate Steven Stamkos is able to join them.
Stamkos, whose 45 points this season were sixth best in the NHL entering Friday’s games, was not one of the 10 players chosen by the NHL Hockey Operations Department to represent the Atlantic Division in the event Feb. 4-5 in Las Vegas. But he can be voted in by fans for the final spot on the Atlantic team through the league’s “Last Men In” process.
One player from each team in the division is on that ballot. Each division will have a Last Men In selection. Voting is at nhl.com and the NHL app through 11:59 p.m. Monday.
“A great experience, a great city,” said Vasilevskiy, an All-Star for the fourth straight time. “Las Vegas, I think it’s the perfect city for the All-Star Game. Just looking forward to it, me and Victor, and hope ‘Stammer’ will join us soon. A great experience to meet with all the best players around the league and just have fun together.”
Eleven players from each division will compete in a 3-on-3 tournament of three 20-minute games. The two Eastern Conference divisions and two Western Conference divisions meet, with the winners to play in the final.
This year’s event seems like something of an afterthought. No game was held last season due to the pandemic-abbreviated schedule. This season, the top players were looking forward to participating in the Olympics before mass postponements forced games to be made up over the three-week break in February originally set aside to allow players to play in Beijing.
Players still are waiting for a new schedule so they know when games will be made up during that stretch and when they will get time off. The Lightning have only three games to make up, but most teams have more.
“(The All-Star Game) will be a good experience,” said Hedman, a four-time All-Star pick. “With everything going on, you weren’t sure if there was going to be one. But at the end of the day, it’s something I’m looking forward to, going there with ‘Vasy’ and hopefully Stammer, too.”
The All-Star format doesn’t reward talent alone. At least one player from each team must be selected, which explains in part Stamkos not being picked. In the Atlantic Division, Ottawa forward Drake Batherson, tied for 59th in scoring entering Friday, and Montreal’s Kurt Suzuki, tied for 157th, were picked to represent their teams.
“All I can say is if I was the one picking guys off our team, (Stamkos) would have been one of the guys, no doubt,” coach Jon Cooper said. “But I don’t know who’s on it, and it’s different in the 3-on-3 because there’s not as many players on a team, so you can only get a couple of players in. But on our side of things, he definitely deserved to be in that game.”
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Stamkos’ Last Men In competition is Boston defenseman Charlie McAvoy, Buffalo forward Tage Thompson, Detroit forward Lucas Raymond, Florida forward Aleksander Barkov, Montreal forward Tyler Toffoli, Ottawa forward Brady Tkachuk and Toronto forward John Tavares.
Given how Stamkos carried the offensive load while Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point were sidelined by injuries this season, Lightning forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said, he was “shocked” that Stamkos wasn’t selected.
“The votes are about the start of the season, and he was our hottest guy while we were missing ‘Pointer’ and ‘Kuch,’ " Bellemare said. “Stammer was there, playing over 20 (minutes) helping the team win every night.”
Stamkos, in his 14th season, has been selected for six All-Star Games, tying Marty St. Louis for most in Lightning history.
“I don’t know if it’s because he’s a guy that’s been in the league so long and he’s been so good for so long that people expect him to be this way and it’s just another year for him,” Bellemare said. “But it’s something difficult to do, to play in the league that long and still deliver. He obviously deserved it.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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