Every year, the NHL All-Star Game is a weekend of talent, fun and most of all, hockey. While it might not be the most competitive match any of its participants will play in, it's a time to raise awareness for the sport, bring the NHL spotlight to a new city and display some of the most exciting stars in the world all on one rink.
Being chosen as an All-Star, however, is still an honorable if inconsequential selection. These two teams are composed of the best of the best, and any player chosen can add that recognition to their resume.
Though we're still lethargically wading through the oppressive summer heat right now, it's never too early to look ahead to the 2012 NHL All-Star Game, sure to be one of the highlights of the upcoming 2011-12 season. The event, to be held in Ottawa, will return to Canada for only the second time in nine years and will also be the memorable first appearance for a handful of up-and-coming stars.
We've picked out 10 particular players who seem primed to break the bubble of just-misses and make the cut to play in their first unforgettable All-Star game next season. They might already have felt the sting of being snubbed before or instead are simply on too fast of a learning curve not to explode onto the scene in time for a selection. However they may get there, all of these players are racing down the track to a first-time All-Star appearance in 2012.
Though he only totaled a pathetic (sarcasm) 28 goals last season, it's hard to find another player who has averaged 33.2 goals for each of the past five seasons (including a 40-goal campaign in there) and still hasn't made it into an All-Star Game. Alexander Semin wasn't just not an All-Star last year—he failed to make the ballot.
Indeed, the 27-year-old Russian forward may be outshone (but only slightly) by fellow European teammates Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, causing him to be the subject of a good number of trade rumors this offseason as the Washington Capitals look to find proven winners. Still, Semin is one of the league's best goal scorers despite his short-term decline.
Hopefully, Semin will be able to return to the 30-goal plateau in 2011-12 and finally get recognized by the same All-Star selection committee that has ignored the winger for so long.
Newly recreated Winnipeg Jets captain (unless his new owners decide that's an official-enough position that he must replaced—see Dudley, Rick and Ramsay, Craig) Andrew Ladd is a perpetually underrated player as he shifts around the NHL. His underratedness is shown by his currently non-existent list of All-Star Game appearances.
Ladd, still just 25, transformed from a third-line player in two seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks to a top-line star with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2010-11, as he effortlessly shattered his then-career-best 2009-10 season stat line (17 goals, 38 points) with an eye-opening 29 tallies and 59 total points.
The former fourth-overall draft pick will need another duplicate performance in the upcoming season if he wants to be an All-Star. But a first-time selection to "The Game" may potentially be in a soon-to-come chapter for Ladd, now looking to become the first to do so out of a quite overlookable Jets roster.
With the potential departure of long-time starc from the Ducks, it could open up a hole for Bobby Ryan to finally secure a definite spot on Anaheim's top line and improve even more on his production over the past three seasons.
The 24-year-old, the second overall draft pick in 2005, spent a dismaying four partial seasons in the AHL before coming up to the NHL level and scoring more than 30 goals for each of his first three seasons in Anaheim. Ryan spent 14 games in the minor leagues in 2008-09 but still managed 31 goals and 57 points in 64 NHL appearances. He then improved on that mark in 2009-10 with 64 points and in this past season with an impressive total of 71.
Still, Ryan has yet to see All-Star Game action, instead watching other elite teammates like Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and the aforementioned Selanne wear the Ducks' colors at the event.
This year, that just might change. As the young winger prepares for another year of chasing the ever-more-reachable 40-goal plateau, 2012 should be the time Ryan finally gets recognized.
Joining fellow Anaheim player Bobby Ryan on this list is the Ducks' best defender, Lubomir Visnovsky, with perhaps one of the better feel-good stories of 2010-11.
Visnovsky, at one time the league's best example of a premier offensive defenseman, entered the 2007-08 season with skyrocketing expectations as a "Class A" D-man after consecutive years of 17 goals, 67 points and 18 goals, 58 points.
However, it suddenly seemed as if those seasons would be the shining peak of his career. Visnovsky dropped to just 41 points and a minus-18 rating that year with Los Angeles, resulting in a move to Edmonton. He was then able to post just 30 points the following year. In early 2010, with Visnovsky on pace for another underperforming year, the Oilers shipped the aging blueliner to Anaheim at the trade deadline.
But out of the blue at age 34, Visnovsky found his groove again. The Slovakian scored 18 goals, ranking second at the position, and 68 points, a league-best for defensemen. His plus-18 rating, a complete turnaround from four years before, was also a career-best and ranked second on the team.
Expect Visnovsky to have a fantastic and heartwarming shot at—miraculously—making his first All-Star appearance next season, as he hopes to close out his career as well-regarded he once was.
During the regular season, 23-year-old Brad Marchand was just another AHL-primed rookie. His credentials of being a former third-round draft pick with two less-than-20-goal minor league seasons didn't open many eyes.
As the winter wore on, though, Marchand began to move up the Boston Bruins lineup. His eventual finish with a respectable 21 goals and 20 assists, ninth among first-year players, gave Marchand the opportunity to start the playoffs on the second line.
It didn't take long, though, before the Bruins realized the second line was too low for a player as fast-learning and clutch as Marchand. Suddenly, the youngster had become the phenomenon of the hockey world and just couldn't stop scoring. When the postseason ended, Marchand was holding the—for many—almost unimaginable Stanley Cup and had scored 11 goals and 19 points in just 25 playoff games.
With the path Marchand has taken to this point, we don't doubt he can move on from last year's campaign with a Jeff Skinner-esque upcoming season and easily top the 30-goal mark. As the value of minor league experience begins to reveal itself in the next generation of NHL stars (Logan Couture, Michael Grabner, Tyler Ennis, Jamie McBain and many others can all attest to that), Marchand is yet another Bruin sure to be an NHL mainstay for decades to come.
It's certainly rare to become a silver medal-winning Olympian before being voted in as an NHL All -Star at least once, but Los Angeles Kings defenseman Jack Johnson, a member of Team USA during the 2010 Winter Olympics, has done so.
It's also definitely an uncommon occurrence to become the second-youngest Norris Trophy (league's best defenseman) finalist in history and a gold medal-winning Olympic competitor before becoming an All-Star at your sport, but Drew Doughty, also a D-man for the Kings, has done that.
Oddly enough, on your average day during the hockey season, these two guys play with each other the entire game.
Indeed, they're an underappreciated pair. Johnson, 24, and Doughty, 21, are both former top-three overall draft picks in their respective years ('05 and '08, respectively) and have scored a combined 95 and 82 points the past two years,respectively, for a budding dynasty in L.A. We anticipate at least one of the two should finally break the ice and, at long last, become an All-Star.
For San Jose Sharks fan favorite Joe Pavelski to go all the way to NHL All-Star level after being chosen in the seventh round of the 2003 NHL draft would be a valiant and awe-inspiring feat. For him to do it under the shadow of fellow forwards Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Martin Havlat would make it all the more mind-boggling.
Pavelski, age 27, has quietly racked up three consecutive seasons with 20-plus scores and 50-plus points. While he dropped to just 20 goals this past season after back-to-back years of 25, Pavelski set career highs with 66 points and a plus-10 rating.
The former 205th overall selection also has shown a good deal of playoff touch over the years. Pavelski scored five goals and 10 points in 18 games during the 2011 postseason, nine tallies and eight helpers for a team-best 17 points during the 2010 playoffs and even five goals and four assists back in the '08 postseason, when the rest of the Sharks were still April-phobic.
Pavelski would need another career-best year, but we think he has the talent and clutch performances to be able to hit that 40-point mark by late January of next year and earn a well-deserved All Star mention. After all, he doesn't appear to be ready to slow down before he gets it.
2009 first overall draft pick John Tavares has been cursed with a, frankly, horrible team during the first two seasons of his NHL career. The New York Islanders have finished 13th and 14th out of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference for each of those seasons.
Through all of the mess of a dilapidated arena, disjointed supporting cast and insanely experience-lacking roster and coaching staff, Tavares has proven he can still put up All-Star-like numbers on the box score. The 20-year-old scored 24 goals, including 11 on the power play, and 54 points during his rookie 2009-10 season. He then jumped up to 29 goals (nine with a man advantage) and 67 points in his most recent campaign.
With a pace like that, it's not difficult to project Tavares to finish the upcoming season in the range of 35 goals and 80 points—something that would've ranked him as a steadfast top 10 NHL forward for the 2010-11 year. With two productive seasons (and, in all likelihood, a third coming soon) and a YoungStars appearance already under his belt, Tavares could be a shoo-in for the 2011 All-Star Game with the learning curve he's sported up to this date.
The outburst Logan Couture had from one season to the next with the San Jose Sharks has him threatening to steal the "fan favorite" role from the previously discussed Joe Pavelski.
Couture looked like any slowly developing first-round pick just a year ago—nine points in his first NHL stint (of 25 games) and 53 points in his first close-to-complete AHL season. But he quickly echoed a memo to the Bay Area that he wasn't going to be just another prospect in a deep Sharks farm system. He furiously went from a training camp roster spot competitor to a 32-goal scorer in just a matter of months, concluding a jaw-dropping 79-game season with 56 points and a plus-18 rating.
Still, Couture wasn't yet finished. He earned a spot as a Calder Trophy (a.k.a. Rookie of the Year) finalist midway through the postseason but didn't hang around to find out his fate. Instead, he racked up seven goals and 14 points—fourth on the team—during the playoffs as he helped bring the Sharks within a couple wins of a conference title.
And that was just his rookie year.
With the pace Couture seems to like to move, we're not going to even try estimating what his sophomore year will be like. There is one thing that isn't hard to predict, though, and we figure you can guess what it is (hint - we've projected it for all of the players we've revealed so far). Without a doubt, Couture will be lacing up his skates on January 29th, 2012, in Ottawa for some team—whether it goes by the name of "Western Conference," "Team Ovechkin" or yet another newfangled hockey-marketing title.
Just because he's the only goaltender on this list doesn't mean Pekka Rinne should be a bit lonely among the realms of All-Star Game snubs. Believe us, he's not without a world of fans of his own. But perhaps Rinne may be a bit alone in some ways, for he's in a class of his own when it comes to players truly worthy of a first-time All-Star Game showing in 2012.
Rinne was one of the three final candidates for the Vezina Trophy (Goalie of the Year) this past spring and was no undeserving finalist. He was able to earn a .930 save percentage, second among starting netminders; a 2.12 goals-against average (GAA), ranking third out of goalies with more than 20 starts; and a quite respectable 33-22-9 record. And he missed over three weeks with a knee injury halfway through the season.
Plus, if you think Joe Pavelski's past as a seventh-round draft pick is inspiring, consider the fact that Rinne was actually chosen in a stage of the draft that doesn't even exist anymore—the eighth round! Since then, the 28-year-old has gone on to accumulate a 95-54-38 career record and a 2.33 all-time GAA—impressive numbers for a more-than-long-shot player at the time of selection.
Rinne was one of the oddest and most shocking omissions from the 2011 All-Star Game in Raleigh. It's hard to conceive he'll miss out again next January if he can stay healthy and continue to play at the echelon he has over the past three seasons.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes . In his 34 months so far with the site, he has written over 295 articles and received more than 335,000 total reads.