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Defense sets the table for Western All-Stars

by Brad Holland
It's not often a defensive group is the headliner for an NHL All-Star Game. But, then again, it isn't often a defensive group is assembled to rival the one that will represent the Western Conference at the 2009 NHL All-Star Game.
The group, part of Wednesday's announcement of the Western Conference reserves, is so good that no less than five of the six  -- starters Brian Campbell and Scott Niedermayer  and reserves Sheldon Souray, Dan Boyle and Shea Weber -- will likely be on Steve Yzerman's short list for Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics and the sixth - Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom - will be the captain of Team Sweden -- should he choose to play for his country in 2010.

All-Stars, indeed.

But, the talent isn't just on the blue line for this year's Western Conference team. Jarome Iginla, Milan Hejduk, Rick Nash, Mike Modano, Pavel Datsyuk, Dustin Brown, Shane Doan, Keith Tkachuk and Joe Thornton were named as the forwards to join starters Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Ryan Getzlaf.

In goal, Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom were selected to back up starter J.S. Giguere.

Still, the six-man defensemen list reads like a who's who of premier offensive-minded defenders in the game today.  In fact, of the six players, it is superstar Niedermayer with the distinction of the 'low' point total, with 5 goals and 24 points through 41 games this season. Those 24 points would be the high from the blue line on no less than 18 teams in the League.

All told, the six defenders average roughly nine goals and 28 points apiece. What's even more impressive is that no less than three of the skaters - Edmonton's Souray, Nashville's Weber and San Jose's Boyle - have each scored 12 goals already, putting the trio on pace for anywhere between 25 and 28 goals apiece by season's end.

Perhaps most importantly, however, not one of the six sacrifices defense for the sake of offense. As a whole, they have skated to a lofty plus-40, led by the immortal Lidstrom's mark of plus-17.

Eastern Conference forwards, take note.

The true skill of this group does not lie in their offensive numbers, nor their defensive prowess, but in a mix of the two -- and in an absolutely spectacular ability from top to bottom for moving pucks out of the zone, and up to attacking forwards.

When those attacking forwards boast such names as Chicago's Kane and Toews, Columbus' Nash and Brown of the Kings, it's easy to see that the 2009 Western Conference All-Stars will have a downright scary offensive attack.

The Western roster may be highlighted by a staggering display of skill on the back end, but the forwards are no slouches either.

With a mix of youth and experience up front -- five of the 12 skaters are under 25 while another six are more than 30 -- and leadership to beat the band (five team captains and six alternates), the Western Conference forwards seem to have it all.

In any other season, the Western forwards just might have been the story, but this year, it's the defense that gets its due. And why not? Each of these defenders - as evidenced by their plus/minus ratio - is a top-pair defender, and in most cases his teams' power-play quarterback.

Yet, each of the six excels in his own end as well.

Niedermayer boasts the defenseman League-high mark for takeaways with 48 (one behind All-Star teammate Datsyuk for the overall NHL lead). Shea Weber has dished out 86 punishing hits this season, and Lidstrom's plus-17 mark is good for a tie for third overall for NHL defensemen, and a tie for 10th overall in the League for all players.

The defensive group also comes with all the right intangibles. They boast two team captains (Lidstrom, Niedermayer) and two alternate captains (Souray and Weber), and a host of experience. Dan Boyle has a Stanley Cup. Nick Lidstrom and Scott Niedermayer each have four. And any one of the six could be adding to his collection of rings this season.

Each defenseman plays on either an established contender -- as in the case of Niedermayer, Lidstrom and Boyle -- or an up-and-coming team -- Weber's Predators, Souray's Oilers, and one of the League's hottest teams, Campbell's Blackhawks.

Just how good have they been? They've been so good, that they were selected as All-Stars ahead of  a number of NHL defensemen having monster seasons of their own.

The roll of defensemen who didn't make the team -- such as Detroit's Brian Rafalski (8-24-32 in 41 games), Calgary's Dion Phaneuf (3-23-26 in 40 games) and San Jose's Rob Blake (6-20-26 in 39 games), among others -- reads like an All-Star team by itself.

They've been so good, that the three Western goaltenders may have to leave the crease in order to see any action.

Vancouver's Luongo, Anaheim's Giguere and Minnesota's Backstrom may not have their work cut out for them in this game, likely because their defense has the puck the entire night.

Such an intimidating proposition for the Eastern Conference skaters; but a welcoming one for fans of the Western Conference.

And, in the end, a treat for all hockey fans on Jan. 24 in Montreal at the 2009 NHL All-Star Game at the Bell Centre.
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