ST. LOUIS – It’s pretty certain the All-Star Game won’t be a snoozer this season like it was in January in Columbus.
That was the sense you got Thursday talking to the Sabres and the St. Louis Blues about Wednesday’s announcement that the game Jan. 31 in Nashville will be played in a 3-on-3 tournament format and the winning team will split $1 million.
“I actually like the thought that there’s going to be a competition for something of value, whatever that is,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said prior to Thursday’s game in Scottrade Center. “I like pride myself but I was there for last year’s game and ... it wasn’t a ton of competition. I like it when there’s competition. East vs. West, whatever. We’re never going back to the Stanley Cup champions vs. the rest of the league but there’s competition there now. I’d hope that’s what this format brings.”
Specifically, a team of 11 players – six forwards, three defenseman and two goalies – will be chosen to represent each division. The tournament will consist of three 20-minute games, with the semifinals pitting the Atlantic Division against the Metropolitan Division and the Central Division against the Pacific. The winners meet in a 20-minute championship for the money. A shootout will determine the winner of any game that is tied.
“I think it’s going to be great. I think it’s going to be lights-out entertainment,” said veteran St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock. “Having coached in so many of those games, when you’re 5-on-5, you can hide. Especially if you’re on holiday mode. You can’t hide 3-on-3.
“If you’re not skating, and you get beat up the ice, there’s going to be millions of people watching it and 20,000 people in the stands seeing it. It’s the best possible venture they can get into without having full contact. This is going to be hard skating and I think it’s going to be really exciting.”
Fans will select one player from each division, without regard for position. That player will be named team captain. The remaining 40 players will be named by the league’s hockey operations department and there will be at least one representative from all 30 teams.
“It’s a cool format and hopefully fans can enjoy it,” said Sabres rookie Jack Eichel, who has immediately been pegged on several Internet sites as the favorite to be Buffalo’s rep. “It’s definitely not easy. You can get stuck out on the ice late with the other team changing, it makes it pretty explosive. There’s a lot of odd-man rushes, back-and-forth action. The fans like that. It’s what the NHL is trying to do.”
“It’s going to let the All-Star Game be different and more competitive,” added Ryan O’Reilly, Buffalo’s leading scorer. “The 3-on-3 is quicker with more action and I think it will be really good for the fans. Guys have to work or you get scored on. It’s definitely a good idea.”
St. Louis star Vladimir Tarasenko, who entered Thursday third in the league with 11 goals, made his first All-Star appearance in Columbus last year and said the crossover of the league’s new overtime format will help the game.
“It’s going to be fun because now I think all teams have some experience playing 3-on-3,” he said. “Everybody knows how fun it is. I think it will be interesting for fans and for us, too.”
Still Tarasenko didn’t necessarily agree with Bylsma’s assertion the game needed an energy boost.
“From my experience, I didn’t think there needed to be more energy. There was a lot of good stuff,” Tarasenko said. “It’s an unreal experience when you talk about all the guys from different teams. It was fun last year and hopefully I can make it this year.”
As part of the agreement to accept the new All-Star format, ESPN.com reported Thursday that the league has agreed to give all teams an additional five-day bye break between Jan. 1 and Feb. 28 next season.
The league and the Players Association are concerned about wear and tear on players who will participate in the World Cup of Hockey opening in Toronto on Sept. 17. Many of those players, of course, would be involved in the 2017 All-Star festivities in Toronto.
Former Sabres captain Steve Ott made a surprise return to the Blues lineup after missing six games with an upper-body injury from a hit in Chicago delivered by Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook.
“He stung me pretty good and it’s never fun to miss games,” said Ott, who took the morning skate Thursday and played despite not having any practice time with the team.
Ott has no goals and two assists in 13 games this year. He has just three goals in 114 games with St. Louis since being dealt with Ryan Miller in February, 2014. Ott said he was intrigued to see the new-look Sabres.
“I’ve watched a lot of games and kept tabs on the old squad. It’s neat to see,” he said. “When you have that many draft picks stockpiled, you’re going to get some pretty exciting good young players. It looks pretty promising for them.”