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NHL's best ready for 2015 All-Star Game

by Staff Writer / New Jersey Devils

COLUMBUS -- For some of the best players in the NHL, Sunday will be a day they likely won't forget.

The 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game at Nationwide Arena (5 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports) will feature many veterans of the event that showcases the League's top personalities.

But for 20 players of varying ages, this will be the first time they participate in an NHL All-Star Game. The teams were selected Friday by the captains, Nick Foligno of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks.

"I remember going to the All-Star Game in Vancouver," said Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook, who will play for Team Toews. "My dad took me and my brother. It was pretty cool to be able to be there and watch those guys skate around and play the game. That was definitely something that I dreamed of and I never really thought it would come true."

Seabrook will turn 30 in April. He's been a very good player in the League for a long time, a two-time Stanley Cup champion and an Olympic gold medalist. He plays on an NHL team full of star talent, so there have been times when he was overlooked.

Another decorated player from Seabrook's draft class of 2003 is Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, who will play for Team Toews. He is a Stanley Cup champion, a two-time Selke Trophy winner, and a two-time Olympic gold medalist.

Bergeron's been considered one of the best two-way players in the League, but the rise of analytics and advanced statistics has elevated his stature. He's now considered one of the best centers, period, with no need to add a "two-way" qualifier.

His offense (11 goals, 32 points) has been much needed for the Bruins this season, helping keep them afloat while Zdeno Chara and David Krejci were missing because of injury.

"I'm just happy to be here, trying to soak everything in," Bergeron said. "It's another thing I can say that I was part of and I lived the experience, and I know how it's like. Definitely something that when I'll look back on my career, I'll be happy that I've done it."

The first-timers come from different backgrounds and generations. Team Foligno's Radim Vrbata is a 33-year-old wing from the Czech Republic who is on his sixth NHL team. He's settled in nicely next to Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin on the top line for the Vancouver Canucks, and his 18 goals are the most by any player who switched NHL teams this offseason.

Team Toews center Tyler Johnson is a 24-year-old from Washington who played in the Western Hockey League and wasn't picked in the NHL Draft, but he has become an integral player for one of the best teams in the League, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Johnson did not participate in the Honda NHL All-Star Skills Competition on Saturday and his status for Sunday is unclear.

Then there are three rookies who were added to the rosters because of injuries, but all three could have been selected on merit. Nashville Predators forward Filip Forsberg of Team Toews, the favorite for the Calder Trophy, has 15 goals and 40 points in 45 games.

His top competition for the Calder might be 18-year-old defenseman Aaron Ekblad, another member of Team Toews. He has six goals, 25 points (the same as Seabrook and Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild), and is playing more than 22 minutes per game for the Florida Panthers, who are battling for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference one season after selecting Ekblad with the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft.

Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau was the last player added, added to Team Toews from the rookie pool Saturday to play in the game Sunday. He trails only Forsberg among rookies with 35 points.

"There's quite a few superstars here, that's for sure," Ekblad said. "I'm awestruck just looking around. It's pretty cool."

That is a big part of the All-Star experience, Ekblad and Vrbata having the chance to spend time with Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux, Patrick Kane and the others.

A few of the first-timers are sure to receive a raucous welcome. Foligno and Blue Jackets teammate Ryan Johansen will play in their first All-Star Game, as will the NHL's leading scorer, former Blue Jackets forward Jakub Voracek, who will represent the Philadelphia Flyers for Team Toews.

Voracek will be playing for his former coach, Peter Laviolette, who is here after helping Forsberg and the Predators to the top of the NHL standings. Darryl Sutter of the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings will coach Team Foligno.

"It's going be fun. It's an All-Star Game, so it's going be a little bit different than a normal game," Voracek said. "I talked to [Laviolette] earlier. It was good to see him. We had a good relationship."

Fans can see the world's most talented players show off their skills in a more relaxed environment than a regular- season game. Players remember the time away from the ice they the most.

"Luckily I've been in the League long enough that I know a lot of the guys and have friends that seem to be in this every year. It's more fun to be around and what not than following it on TV," first-time all-star forward Bobby Ryan of the Ottawa Senators said. "I guess being a rookie in that sense, I'm just trying to soak it all up and enjoy the experience. It's a lot of fun. Whenever you get around a group of guys like this and you get the opportunity to just kind of hang out in the locker room, I think that's what we all look most forward to."

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