LAS VEGAS When the stars come out in Las Vegas, Auston Matthews will almost assuredly be among them.
The Maple Leafs centre, with 22 goals, was the favourite to be named captain of the Atlantic Division team in the latest fan voting. The NHL all-star weekend is planner for Feb. 4-5.
“It would mean a lot,” Matthews said of a potential fifth all-star nod. “I’ve been fortunate to play in a few over the last couple of years and it’s a big honour to be selected and to surround yourself with the best players in the league and be recognized for something like that.”
Connor McDavid (Pacific), Alex Ovechkin (Metropolitan) and Nathan MacKinnon (Central) were the other divisional leaders in fan voting. The captains are to be named Thursday.
It’s not a best-on-best tournament like the Olympics would have been. There’s a very different vibe at all-star events, where competition takes a back seat to personality.
“They’re fun,” Matthews said. “They’re busy, there’s no question about that, but it’s fun getting to know guys that you grew up watching, or guys you don’t really know, getting to know people, meeting people. All in all, it’s a pretty unique experience. It’s definitely a busy one, but I think it’s worth it.”
Matthews will have two more games before the announcement, starting against the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday.
Good things happen to Matthews in Vegas. He has seven goals and two assists in six career games against the Golden Knights, though the last time he was in Vegas — Nov. 19, 2019 — he was held off the scoresheet in a 4-2 loss.
But more to the point, Matthews also won his first important NHL award, the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2017, at the NHL awards show in Vegas.
So he kind of likes the city, especially when the Leafs’ trip through the region includes a game in Arizona, near his home in Scottsdale.
“I think we’re just happy it’s in a city like this with a lot going on, good weather,” Matthews said after practice at T-Mobile Arena. “For me, it’s close to home. If I’m fortunate to go, it’s a quick flight for my family. You can’t really go wrong with putting an all-star game in Vegas, honestly.”
Yes, Vegas beats just about any other NHL city as the place where players want to be, even during a pandemic with casinos and the stores along the strip seeming quite serious about their patrons wearing masks.
The NHL all-star game has historically lacked the panache of its NBA counterpart.
But it’s still a worthy event, says Jason Spezza, a two-time participant from his younger days with the Ottawa Senators.
“My first all-star Game experience, I played with (Ovechkin) and Martin St. Louis on a line,” Spezza said. “That was really cool.
“We’re in these heated rivalries throughout the year, but it’s kind of a lighter time, to talk shop a little bit. There’s always a lot going on when you’re there. But I think just being there with all those guys to me was something that was special.”
Too often, NHL players try to find ways not to go, preferring rest and depriving the event of some star power. And too often the game doesn’t resemble anything close to hockey.
“It’s all about what your expectations are,” Spezza said. “If you’re expecting Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, you’re looking in the wrong place.”
The Leafs could end up with more than Matthews heading to the all-star game. Goalie Jack Campbell, defenceman Morgan Rielly and winger William Nylander could be in the mix when the rest of the teams are named Jan. 13. Each team must have at least one player on the four 11-man divisional rosters, which will play in a 3-on-3 tournament.
Coach Sheldon Keefe sounds more proud that a number of his players might be chosen rather than worrying that any of them might get hurt at the event.
“It’s a showcase for the league and for the players themselves and for our organization,” Keefe said. “So we’re very fortunate to have a lot of players that could represent our team well. So the more the better. We’ve got a lot of guys that certainly have earned that distinction this season. I know that the all-star game is always tough to get everybody in because of the format … but we’ve got a lot of players that are having great seasons.”
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