Column

The kids are all righteous at NHL's All-Star weekend

A mega-dose of youth is being served at NHL showcase: 11 All-Stars under 25, including 18-year-old Aaron Ekbla

For years the NHL's most familiar player was Mr. Hockey, who gave way to the Great One, who in turn gave way to the Next One.

The next Next One could be any of a half-dozen players who will participate in this weekend's All-Star festivities at Nationwide Arena, perhaps joining a line of succession graced by Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby.

Injuries have kept established stars such as Crosby, his Pittsburgh teammate Evgeni Malkin, goaltenders Pekka Rinne and Jimmy Howard and defenseman Erik Johnson from taking part in the All-Star events, which began Friday with a light-hearted fantasy draft and will continue Saturday with skills contests. The All-Star game, to be played Sunday, will match Team Foligno against Team Toews, the first named for hometown favorite Nick Foligno of the Columbus Blue Jackets and the second for Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.

Kings Coach Darryl Sutter will coach Team Foligno, whose roster includes Kings center Anze Kopitar and defenseman Drew Doughty. "It's hard to go wrong," Sutter said of picking players. Team Toews, which includes Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf, will be coached by Peter Laviolette of the Nashville Predators. "I like our team," said Getzlaf, who tussled with Calgary defenseman Mark Giordano last week but still picked him Friday.

"Both teams are sick," said Doughty, who got into the jovial spirit by jabbing Getzlaf about the Kings' playoff win over the Ducks last spring, "but I like our team."

The absence of some established stars has cleared the way for youngsters to step into the spotlight. Eleven All-Stars are under 25. Rookie scoring leader Filip Forsberg, 20, of Nashville replaced Malkin. Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, 18, replaced Johnson. Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau, 21, will participate in the skills contest.

And as unexpectedly amusing as Friday night's fantasy draft turned out — Alexander Ovechkin's pleas to be chosen last so he could get a car as a consolation prize were denied, and a second Phil Kessel-for-Tyler Seguin trade was made — the real intrigue will come when the youngsters take their places on the All-Star stage.

"I think it's great. I think that's what it's all about," said Getzlaf, who teamed with Toews and Rick Nash to choose Ekblad, Forsberg and dynamic 23-year-old St. Louis forward Vladimir Tarasenko.

"It's a young man's game now and I think that when they come in and they're able to experience something like this, maybe get some of those nerves out that they have, it's a good experience."

Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane, who helped Foligno and Doughty choose their roster, recalled being in those kids' skates.

"I think it's a pretty cool thing they do with the young guys, bringing them along and letting them be part of the skills competition. I always enjoyed watching that Young Guns game when I was younger and I was part of that one time," he said, referring to one format the NHL has used. "These guys are going to be very good players in our league and players to watch in the future, so it's good they bring them along."

Ekblad, the first pick in the entry draft last June, has been impressive at a position kids usually take a while to master. He's averaging 22 minutes 3 seconds of ice time per game for Florida, where he's being mentored by former King Willie Mitchell.

Ekblad also credited his agent, Hall of Famer Bobby Orr, and Panthers broadcaster Denis Potvin, also a Hall of Fame defenseman, for guiding him.

"Every day me and Willie break everything down, when it comes to the games and practices. I learn a lot from him," Ekblad said. "Mr. Potvin is always in the room for media stuff, and we often talk. . . . It's a good support system to have, that's for sure."

Gaudreau sometimes can't believe where he is. "It's been a crazy year so far," he said. "I wasn't sure if I was going to stay in college or go pro. I think I made the right decision."

The youth theme will continue after this weekend. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players' Assn. Executive Director Donald Fehr are scheduled to hold a news conference Saturday to announce the staging of a World Cup tournament in the fall of 2016, and one of the teams reportedly will be comprised of Canadians and Americans who are 23 or younger. The other entries will be Canada, the U.S., Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, and a team of players from less-powerful hockey nations such as Slovenia, Slovakia, Latvia and Switzerland.

Before that, though, the NHL's youngsters can make names for themselves here. Doughty is looking forward to seeing what they can do.

"They're going to be top players on their teams and top players in the league," he said, "and for them to come here and meet a lot of veteran guys and kind of get comfortable with these situations I think is important for them and for the league as well, to get their face out there."

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
71°