Puck Daddy - NHL

Something remarkable happened in the NHL this week: Kris Letang(notes) of the Pittsburgh Penguins was voted into the All-Star Game despite not having his name on the ballot.

The fans sent in 477,960 write-in votes for the defenseman, and he led his peers at that position in the final balloting. The NHL "snubbed" him; the fans made up for the oversight in what's been a career year for him. 

There was a time -- let's call it "2006" -- when it took coordinated Internet campaigns to get a write-in candidate near the top two in a given conference, let alone on top of the tally.

So why wasn't Letang's election the headline-grabber today?

Because the NHL All-Star Game's new format has made fan balloting a confusing, disengaging and rather irrelevant exercise for fans this season. Which, of course, was by design.

In case you've spaced on this: The 2011 NHL All-Star Game is an entirely different animal. Six players were named to a fantasy pool today, and will join 36 others players hand-picked by NHL Hockey Operations on Jan. 11. Two captains and four alternate captains will be selected by the pool of players, and they will draft two teams to compete in the game in Raleigh on Jan. 30.

(By the way, the NHL announced that the "captains will be announced in about two weeks, at which time team names will be designated as the last name of each captain." Team Lidstrom vs. Team Staal, perhaps?)

Today, the "first six All-Stars" were announced: Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby(notes) received 635,509 total votes, Chicago Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews(notes) got 407,676 and the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin(notes) got 376,887 at forward. Letang led the defensemen with 477,960 votes, with Duncan Keith(notes) of the Blackhawks in second with 382,162. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) led the goalies with 426,305.

These players are not starters, mind you, as they would have been in the past. They're just the first six players in the pool. No one knew what the hell they were voting for, so the fans met the revamped format with apathy.

Consider this: For the 2009 All-Star Game in Montreal, Crosby received an NHL record 1,713,021 votes while Malkin received 1,585,936. Fleury was second among goaltenders with 1,486,079 votes.

(You want to make the argument that those were totals inflated by computer programs that hacked the voting site and robo-voted for the Penguins and Canadiens? Go ahead. Point is that fans didn't care enough in 2010-11 to even figure out how to cheat the system.)

Consider this: The vote totals for Crosby (825,783 to 635,509), Alex Ovechkin(notes) (475,297 to 245,180) and Lidstrom (573,069 to 296,600) were higher in 2007 than they were this year.

Fans weren't sure what difference their votes would make. The answer is: Not much. All six players were going to be All-Stars anyway, with the longshot exception of Keith on defense (despite the Norris and the 24 points in 41 games).

When there are 12 slots up for a vote, there's a sense that a difference can be made. Had there been a more traditional setup -- i.e. conference-based -- fans would have voted Chris Pronger(notes), Marian Hossa(notes) and Jaroslav Halak(notes) into the ASG this season. There's a chance all three won't make the cut when the NHL makes its selections.

Again, this was by design: The NHL has taken what's generally been referred to as the "fans' game" and handed control to the players, who have grown tired of being the patrons' puppets annually and sought motivation through a schoolyard pick-up vibe. That was NHL VP Brendan Shanahan's(notes) plan in revamping the game, with the hope that it would rekindle the competitive fire for these hockey stars.

If it works, it reinvents the wheel, and the NHL All-Star Weekend is finally appointment television again. If it fails ... well, there's always Canada vs. The World. Haven't tried that yet.

We happen to think it's an awesome idea. We're jacked for the game, for the draft, for the skills competition. Non-hockey fans that hear about the new format are intrigued. Without seeing the thing come to life yet, it's obvious that the new All-Star Game has created a buzz.

Which is why the lack of buzz for the All-Star voting is such a downer. They pulled this thing together without really thinking about how to reinvent the fan vote in an effective way. Six players lead to predictability; 12 allow for some unpredictability.

Go conference vs. conference in the voting, and then place all 12 in the pool.

And what's the harm in saying that no matter the team they're drafted to, the fan-elected players are starting players? 

One idea we've kicked around: Take the top six placers, make them one starting lineup; take the next six, and make them the other starting lineup. It's not entirely in the spirit of Shanahan's experiment, but it'll get the fans involved.

Let's hope our apathy for the voting doesn't translate into apathy for what should be a fascinating experiment.

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