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Fantasy Draft adds 'hot sauce' to weekend

by Dan Rosen
RALEIGH -- Carolina captain Eric Staal wouldn't have complained if this NHL All-Star Weekend was like every other, with the pre-organized rosters and a quiet Friday night before the Saturday SuperSkills competition. The fact that it isn't has made his life that much more exciting the past few weeks.

Staal will join Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom on stage Friday for the first NHL All-Star Fantasy Draft powered by Cisco (8 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN). Ryan Kesler and Mike Green will assist Team Staal, while Patrick Kane and Martin St. Louis will help select players for Team Lidstrom.

The Fantasy Draft is an innovative, never-before-seen event for the NHL. By now, no one can argue with the buzz it has created within the hockey community.

"I would not necessarily say that (the All-Star Game) needed to be changed, but I think the change is welcome," Staal said. "I think it is a great idea. It adds a different element. You haven't seen anything like this in pro sports before with anything."

Since the NHL announced the 42 All-Stars earlier this month, media outlets like this one have been conducting mock drafts, updating them as soon as a replacement was named for an injured player.

You can make the argument that the media hype for the 2011 NHL All-Star Game presented by Discover is unprecedented.

The entire three-day hockey extravaganza has been chiefly organized by former All-Star Brendan Shanahan, now the League's Vice President of Hockey and Business Development, and the concept of the Fantasy Draft is something he believes has ignited not only media and fan interest in All-Star Weekend, but the players have grasped the idea as well.

Shanahan's goal was to give All-Star Weekend back to the players, make it fun and interesting for them instead of mundane and stale.

He's done that.

"The players think it's fun," Shanahan said. "They're interested to see how the draft shakes down. Do the captains focus on individual talents? Do they focus on the skills competition or on the game? Do they lock up their goaltenders or go after scoring? Everybody is interested and we want people to see it."

There are rules to this 18-round draft. All six goaltenders must be selected by the end of the 10th round and all 10 defensemen have to go by the 15th round. That means there will be six forwards left waiting to hear their names called around 9 p.m. ET.

That story may be the most interesting of the night, perhaps of the entire weekend. There's also a 50/50 chance that the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, who never have played on different teams, get separated here. Hometown rookie Jeff Skinner, a late addition for one of Pittsburgh's two injured stars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, could steal the show, too.

If Staal wins the pre-draft coin flip, would he select the precocious 18-year-old who is the youngest player to play for the All-Stars in an All-Star Game in any of the four major sports? Staal also could go with his own goaltender, Cam Ward, another hometown favorite who he said is a must-have for his team.

"I think we need to be on the same team and let the home crowd cheer for one team," Staal said.

Lidstrom might have other plans. He could show a rare vindictive side (Everybody has to have one, don't they?) and pick Ward just to get under Staal's skin.

"It might be a good strategy to take him and get the crowd on our side," Lidstrom said. "We'll talk amongst ourselves about what we're going to do. We'll have to wait and see."

Staal could have another decision to make. Does he pick his brother, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal?

If he doesn't, he might hear about it from his mother

"The way he's been talking, he's been telling me to take him first, and then he's telling me he doesn't want me to pick him, so he doesn't really know what he wants," Staal said. "I've been having some pressure from my mom, making sure we are on the same team."

There also are 12 rookies here not named Skinner and they also will be involved in the draft show tonight, except they're going to get the chance to pick which captain they want to join for the Honda SuperSkills competition Saturday night.

The rookies will be split into two groups of six, and after the 15th round the draft will break and a coin flip will determine which group of rookies gets to choose its side.

Skinner originally was part of that group, but he was promoted to the big game.

"It's to just turn it around a little bit on the All-Stars and to throw a little bit of hot sauce on the event," Shanahan said. "You've got players picking teams and players shunning teams, and you want them to go out the next day and sort of feel like, 'Hey, I'm happy to be here, we're all here to have a good time, but you punk, you didn't choose me and I want to beat you.'"

The feeling is that this draft concept will rev up the competitive juices in all the players for the rest of the weekend. The All-Star Game on Sunday won't resemble your average hockey game, since nobody wants to get hurt here, but Shanahan definitely feels every player will remember where he's picked tonight and that could drive him come Sunday.

"I've never played on a more competitive team than the Red Wings, and we were like children. If the coach or anybody asked us to do something and made it a contest, we'd go through a wall with a big smile on our face," Shanahan said. "These players are born to compete and have fun competing, and that's what this is about."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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