By FRED GOODALL
The Associated Press
TAMPA, Fla. — Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, P.K. Subban, Connor McDavid, John Tavares, Henrik Lundquist, Marc-Andre Fleury.
Most of the biggest names in hockey will be center-stage today in the NHL All-Star game. So will Auston Matthews and a wave of other young American-born players energizing a league benefiting from an infusion of speed and skill.
Matthews, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft, is just 20 years old and already a two-time All-Star.
Jack Eichel, the second pick in 2015, is a first-time All-Star at age 21. Noah Hanifin, 21, and Conner Hellebuyck, 24, are making their debuts as well, while 20-year-old Brock Boeser is the lone rookie joining the party at Amalie Arena.
“It’s crazy. … This is my 10th year, I’ll be 28 in the next couple of weeks, and I feel like an old guy,” Stamkos, a five-time All-Star voted captain of the Atlantic Division team vying for $1 million in a winner-take-all, three-game tournament played in a three-on-three format.
“It’s pretty amazing to see how young the league has become, but even more amazing to see how good these kids are coming up,” Stamkos added. “It just goes to show you the skill, and just how ready these 18, 19-year-old kids are right away to step into this league, where 10, 15 years ago it was unheard of to do that.”
Two other young Americans — Seth Jones, 23, and Johnny Gaudreau, a four time All-Star who’s 24 — also were also selections in a year when NHL has chosen to not sent its players to the Olympics.
The decision has left some potential first-time Olympians wondering what might have been.
Matthews, of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was the first U.S.-born player drafted No. 1 overall since Patrick Kane in 2007.
Boeser leads all rookies 24 goals and 43 points for the Vancouver Canucks, while Eichel has 20 goals and 49 points for the Buffalo Sabres.
“Really impressive. The quality of USA hockey, we have a lot of young players that are developing fast, coming into the league and having a ton of success. It’s pretty cool to see,” said Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler, a first time All-Star at 31.
“I think all of us that had the chance to play in the Olympics kind of wish we were going there, I guess. But All-Star weekend’s a fun weekend. I think the NHL does a great job of putting on a good show,” said Kane, who turned 29 in November.
“We’re here now,” the seven-time All-Star added. “I try not to worry or dwell too much on what’s going on with the Olympics or what not’s going on with that.”
Wheeler agreed, though he still wishes NHL players were headed to South Korea next month.
“You know you’re not going, so you don’t even think about it. But, it’s a missed opportunity,” Wheeler said.
“As cool as it is for players to be part of the Olympic experience, it’s a missed opportunity to expand our game,” Wheeler added. “A lot of casual viewers that maybe aren’t hockey fans, they watch USA-Canada. They cheer. That’s an opportunity for us to expand the game and make more fans. That’s kind of the bummer about it.”
Still, being in Tampa and mingling with older All-Stars who many of the younger players grew up admiring and modeling their games after isn’t a bad consolation prize.
It’s an ideal opportunity to give fans a glimpse of the future.
“A lot of the best players in the league are in that age group. So, it’s pretty special to watch,” Subban, captain of the Central Division team said.
“I think the game is at a very good point just with the number of new faces that are coming into the league and having success right away, as well as the guys that have been around a while,” said McDavid, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 and the league’s reigning MVP at 21.
“Partly that’s why I think the Olympics would have been so interesting this year, is to be able to see the teams that were available to put together,” the Pacific Division captain added. “The game is just at a good point.”