Phil Kessel is heading back to the NHL all-star game and it’s hard to imagine he’ll have to wait until the end of the draft before hearing his name called this time.
The Toronto Maple Leafs forward was among the final 36 players added to the event by the league’s hockey operations department Thursday, joining Maple Leafs teammates Joffrey Lupul and Dion Phaneuf for the Jan. 29 game at Scotiabank Place.
Kessel’s participation in last year’s all-star weekend is best remembered for him becoming the last selection in the inaugural draft — a somewhat embarrassing moment that included Capitals star Alex Ovechkin chuckling and snapping a photo of Kessel sitting alone waiting to be picked.
“Hopefully he’s not selected last two years in a row,” Lupul said Thursday. “But he got a car for it, so I mean it’s not all bad, right?”
Besides, no one is laughing now.
Kessel has been among the league’s most prolific players all season and entered play Thursday sitting second overall in scoring with 48 points, two behind Vancouver Canucks forward Henrik Sedin, another newly minted all-star.
In fact, the top nine scorers so far will all be in attendance, a list that includes Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux, Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin, Chicago’s Marian Hossa, Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin and Ottawa’s Jason Spezza, along with Henrik Sedin, Kessel and Lupul.
The other attendees include names like Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, Corey Perry, Zdeno Chara, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Lundqvist — making it a who’s-who gathering of NHL players.
“I think it means a lot (to be there),” said Henrik Sedin. “It’s one of those things I think you’re going to look back at when you’re done playing (and feel proud) that you’ve been to one or a few of those. That’s something you can tell your grandkids.”
The draft format will remain for this year’s event but is expected to include a few changes — with one source indicating a defenceman could be left until the end. As the last man standing a year ago, Kessel received US$20,000 for charity and a Honda CR-Z hybrid.
“I’ve still got it,” he said Thursday.
A similar bounty is expected to soften the blow for the final player selected at the all-star draft in Ottawa.
The NHL Players’ Association worked in close consultation with league executive Rob Blake on the organization of the event and players were overwhelming in favour of keeping a last man standing.
The captains and assistants in charge of selecting the all-star teams will be announced next week. One of them is expected to be Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, who fans previously voted into the game along with teammates Erik Karlsson, Milan Michalek and Spezza.
The Senators are the best represented team. The Canucks, Leafs, Bruins, Rangers and Blackhawks all have three players participating in the all-star game.
The Sedin twins are joined by Canucks teammate Alexander Edler while Calgary will be represented by Jarome Iginla, another potential choice to captain one of the all-star teams. Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price and Winnipeg Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien will also participate.
As in past years, a number of worthy candidates will miss out on the event. Injuries kept Oilers forwards Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins from receiving an invite, while veteran Red Wings defenceman Nick Lidstrom and Ducks forward Teemu Selanne each asked to be overlooked.
“I’ve been there many times,” said Selanne, a 10-time all-star. “I honestly think for the young players it’s a good opportunity.”
For the Maple Leafs, it will be the first time the team had three representatives since they hosted the event at Air Canada Centre in 2000. It’s an encouraging sign for the organization.
“I think all three really deserve it,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson.
“And it says a lot for the direction our team is going in, and the type of season that we’ve had so far. There’s no charity picks here, we’re not in a boat where we have to send somebody.
“All three guys have played really well this year.”
Added Kessel: “I think it should be a good time.”