WHO GOT THE BEST SKILLS: CHECK OUT OUR TOP RATINGS

In doing some quick research on how yours truly fared when it came to predicting the All-Star Skills Competition winners last season, it must be said that there was a moment, fleeting and all-too-brief, that I began sitting a little taller and, if I didn’t know better, I’d be certain my head began to inflate.

But, hey, can you blame me? Scrolling through the results from the 2019 events and checking those against my predictions last season, it was easy to start feeling a certain kind of way about my prognostication skills, almost as though I was the most useless version of Nostradamus. It began when I realized the choices for Fastest Skater, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, finished one-two in the event. Then it turned out that the Puck Control event was also picked correctly – thank you, Johnny Gaudreau. When realizing the sleeper pick for Save Streak, Henrik Lundqvist, also came through with the win, visions of a Las Vegas fortune began flitting through this dimwit’s otherwise hollow skull.

Of course, that gambler’s high came plummeting to the ground about as fast as it had ascended. Turns out neither of the players picked to succeed in the Premier Passer event even competed in the event. The same goes for my Accuracy Shooting favorites and sleeper. Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby and Elias Pettersson watched that one from the sidelines. As for my Hardest Shot picks, Seth Jones and Steven Stamkos finished third and fourth out of, ahem, four skaters. Not great!

Alas, dear reader, I will not be discouraged by last season’s mediocre results. Thus, with the NHL announcing event participants Thursday evening, I’ve taken another run at picking the favorites and sleepers for the skills competition events taking place Friday night in St. Louis. And you can take these picks to the bank. Or not. Your choice, really. One important note: there’s a $30,000 prize for the winner of each of the five individual events, so there’s more than bragging rights on the line in a handful of these competitions.

FASTEST SKATER
Maybe more than the Hardest Shot or Accuracy Shooting, this is the staple event that fans get most excited to witness. Given the speed in today’s game, we’re seeing some of the fastest laps in the history of the competition, and this year’s event is chock full of talent. There’s a clear-cut favorite, of course, but the reigning champion, McDavid, has a few legitimate challengers for his crown.

Participants:
Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
Chris Kreider, New York Rangers
Anthony Duclair, Ottawa Senators
Travis Konecny, Philadelphia Flyers
Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks

Favorite: “Connor McDavid. Don’t overthink it.” – Jared Clinton, Jan. 24, 2018

Sleeper: Anyone not named McDavid is technically a sleeper. The Oilers captain has had the fastest time at each of the past three all-star weekends. Last year’s event, however, saw McDavid face his greatest challenge, as Eichel came within two-tenths of a second of McDavid’s time. If someone manages to knock McDavid off the mountain, it’s going to be one of the biggest moments of the weekend. The deep sleeper? Chris Kreider, who was a late addition in place of teammate Artemi Panarin. The longtime Ranger has wheels.

SAVE STREAK
The event has become a fixture of the Skills Competition because of its simplicity and the opportunity it provides for goaltenders to strut their stuff. Each netminder will face at least nine shooters under NHL shootout rules, and the object of the event is for goaltenders to string together the longest run of consecutive saves possible. No goalie’s round can end on a save, so if a keeper stops the ninth shot he faces, he then starts facing shooters again from the top of the lineup until a goal is allowed. The NHL has listed all eight netminders as participants and all eight all-star netminders took part last season.

Participants:
David Rittich, Calgary Flames
Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins
Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs
Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks
Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

Favorite: Lundqvist got hot last season and won the event, but the favorite this time around is the keeper who finished second in 2019: Vasilevskiy. There’s more to that choice than his performance at last Skills Competition, however. Among all NHL keepers who have faced at least 10 shootout attempts since the introduction of the game-deciding event, Vasilevskiy has the fourth-highest save percentage of all time. In fact, no goaltender with at least 50 shots against has been better than Vasilevskiy, who boasts an .852 SP in the shootout.

Sleeper: It’s a small sample – he’s only faced 19 attempts – but hometown hero Binnington could delight Blues fans with his performance in the event. He’s going to be motivated to put on a show for the St. Louis crowd and he’s got a knack for being calm, cool and collected. That’s the perfect demeanor for the competition. Keep an eye on Jarry, too, though. He’s only played in three games that have gone to a shootout, but he’s stopped a dozen of the 15 attempts he’s faced in those games. His .800 SP is a hair better than Binnington’s mark. Probably a safe bet to stay away from Andersen, who has a career .662 SP in the shootout.

ACCURACY SHOOTING
No matter what new wrinkles the NHL might add to the competition, you know how this one works. Each participant will line up and attempt to pick off targets, and whoever manages to hit all the targets in the fastest time will be crowned the champion. Easy enough.

Participants:
Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes
Tyler Bertuzzi, Detroit Red Wings
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers
Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers
Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils
Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks
Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues
Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

Favorite: Not a single one of the participants has experience in the event on this stage, so there’s no historical data off of which we can base a prediction. That said, it wasn’t all that long ago that the Jets held their team skills competition, at which Scheifele participated in the accuracy event and managed to hit all targets in roughly 12.8 seconds. Now, last season, that wouldn’t have been enough to win the event and it likely won’t be enough to win this time around, but that he’s familiar with the mechanics of accuracy shooting and has done it recently might give him a minor advantage. He also has a 19.8 shooting percentage this season. That’s the highest of any player in the NHL who has taken at least 100 shots.

Sleeper: It used to be that this was Ray Bourque’s event. He would step up, knock down the targets, take home the prize and we would all marvel at the sharpshooting prowess of one of the NHL’s blueliners. It’s high time we get to do that again, so, let’s pick the Blues’ own Pietrangelo to finish at the top of the heap. For what it’s worth, he is having the best shooting season of his career. His 13 goals are two off of his career-best mark and if he maintains his 8.4 percent conversion rate, he’ll best his previous career-high by 0.7 percent.

HARDEST SHOT
Two shots each. Hardest shot wins. No further explanation required.

Participants:
Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames
Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens
Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
John Carlson, Washington Capitals

Favorite: Weber, a three-time champion of the Hardest Shot, steps back onto all-star ice to reclaim his crown and the expectation will be that he walks away the winner. When he won the event in the past, he has done so with blasts of 108.5, 108.1 and 102.8 miles per hour. We’d only be halfway shocked if he managed to split a puck in half this time.

Sleeper: Make note of Weber’s third winning time. When he captured the title in 2017, he did so with a 102.8 mile per hour blast, a speed that was equalled last season by Carlson, who won with an identical 102.8 mile per hour clapper. No one is expecting anyone but Weber to win, but Carlson’s consistency – both of his times were above 100 miles per hour and both were fast enough to win the competition last season – makes him a worthy dark horse pick. One flubbed shot by Weber and the door is wide open for another victor.

SHOOTING STARS
The newest event needs the most explanation, so here are the basics: players will stand on an elevated platform above the ice and shoot pucks at targets spread across the ice. Each target will be worth a different point value, and players will have seven shots to earn as many points as possible. The same target can be hit more than once. A tie between two players results in a three-shot “score-off.” Whoever has the highest score wins.

Participants:
David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars
Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators
Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues
David Perron, St. Louis Blues
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs
Women’s Elite All-Star (CAN) — TBD
Women’s Elite All-Star (USA) — TBD

Favorite: Really, this is anyone’s game, but it should be said that Seguin has some familiarity with trickshottery. The Stars and YouTube trick-shot experts Dude Perfect have teamed up on a number of occasions, and Seguin has done everything from picking off clay targets to – you guessed it – firing pucks from the upper deck of American Airlines Center, which he did alongside Jamie Benn as part of a promotional video for the 2020 Winter Classic.

Sleeper: Does anyone doubt Kane’s ability to work some magic from distance? He’s one of the best puckhandlers in the game. However, if there has to be one sleeper pick made, a safe bet is O’Reilly. Though he might not stand out as the player most likely to feather pucks onto targets from 30-feet in the air, he fared pretty well in the Premier Passer event last season, which was scrapped in favor of the Shooting Stars event. He didn’t quite win, but that he was in the running is a testament to his ability to put the puck in the right spot. That accuracy can pay off.

ELITE WOMEN’S 3-on-3
American All-Stars square off against Canadian All-Stars in a 3-on-3 contest consisting of two 10-minute running-time periods. Penalties will result in a penalty shot.

Team USA: Kacey Bellamy, Alex Carpenter, Kendall Coyne Schofield, Brianna Decker, Amanda Kessel, Hilary Knight, Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson, Annie Pankowski, Alex Rigsby Cavallini, Lee Stecklein

Team Canada: Meghan Agosta, Mélodie Daoust, Ann-Renée Desbiens, Renata Fast, Laura Fortino, Rebecca Johnston, Sarah Nurse, Marie-Philip Poulin, Natalie Spooner, Blayre Turnbull

Favorite: No need to list a sleeper, so let’s do away with that in favor of saying that Team USA is going into this one with the on-paper advantage. The offensive firepower on the American team is absolutely overwhelming, with Decker, Coyne Schofield, Kessel and Knight the names most will recognize. If there’s any “sleeper,” it’s the potential for Pankowski to stand out and step into the spotlight by the time the contest ends.