The time has come at last for the best, the brightest, and those that fall into the category of "other", to descend upon Music City for a weekend celebrating all that hockey has to offer.
Okay, so maybe liking the All-Star Game isn't necessarily the cool thing to do. The game itself is usually bad, the jerseys are usually ugly, sometimes the right people are left out (or the wrong people included) and none of it really means anything. Like many of the players in the NHL, you may choose to take this weekend as a much-needed vacation from the game; frankly, no one would judge you for doing so.
Should you decide to tune in to the festivities this weekend, however, there is much to celebrate and much to get excited about - especially as a Caps fan.
Of course, it won't have Alex Ovechkin, which is disappointing from a purely All Star-centric view because it takes a guy out of the weekend who has basically been reason enough to tune in every time he's attended, a player who really gets what it means to make the event about fun and the fans. But from a hockey standpoint, his absence is completely understandable (and preferable, to be honest). As fun as this weekend can be, there's no need to put his health in jeopardy for a game that means nothing to a team with much bigger aspirations.
And if anyone has earned the right to take the weekend off, it's Ovechkin. He's now been voted to the All-Star Game a franchise-record seven times, and this will be just the second time he's skipped it (and the reasons for that one exception, despite what some thought at the time and apparently still think, were perfectly valid). That's something a lot of the game's biggest stars can't say - and if Ovechkin wants to put his own health and the needs of his team ahead of an exhibition game, no one should criticize him for doing so for the first time.
The silver lining? Evgeny Kuznetsov, who probably should have been on the roster to begin with, gets the nod as Ovechkin's replacement. The Caps will have some pretty hefty representation in Nashville this weekend, with Kuznetsov joining Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby on the Metropolitan Division squad, and coach Barry Trotz at the helm. Not only are there just two teams with more than the three representatives being sent by the Caps, but this also marks the most players from Washington at an All-Star Game since 1985, when the Caps had four (Bobby Carpenter, Mike Gartner, Rod Langway, and Scott Stevens).
It's not just the sheer number of Caps in attendance, although that part is great in its own right; what makes this extra special is that now, with Kuznetsov's inclusion, all three of them are first-time All Stars.
The claim is often made that the players don't necessarily like the All-Star weekend. Maybe that's true, insofar as they're "working" while the rest of the League gets to take a vacation - and perhaps for some of the veterans of many an All-Star Game, it can be a little tiresome. But there's something pretty neat about watching a player take everything in as a first-time All Star, and even more so to see three guys from the same team go through that experience together.
Of the three newbies, getting to watch Nicklas Backstrom finally pull on an All-Star jersey and take his rightful place among the League's best is something which is both eagerly anticipated and long, long overdue. Year after year we've watched the perennial point-per-game Swede get overlooked for a spot among the NHL elite; it may not "matter" in the grand scheme of things, but it becomes part of a player's legacy, and more importantly speaks to the respect (or lack thereof) for his abilities by the NHL brass.
Hey, all it took was nine seasons in the NHL, a spot on the top line of the best team in the League, and some tireless lobbying from one of his biggest fans to get him where we all know he's always belonged.
Backstrom is fully capable of putting on a show this weekend, as are his two teammates - and that's yet another reason to want to tune in, whether it's to see Kuznetsov wow everyone in a three-on-three tournament that seems almost tailored specifically for him, or to watch Holtby take on the thankless task of facing down a barrage of shots from some of the best goal-scorers around. Of course, even if all they do is take the ice and not get injured (...seriously, please don't get injured), they'll do us proud.
It's not just the players who are a draw for Caps fans this weekend. Getting to see Barry Trotz return to the city that helped shape him as a coach and that he helped shape as a hockey market is going to be something special. He's already making his way around his old stomping grounds, including paying a visit to the Nashville chapter of Best Buddies, an organization that helps pair special-needs kids and adults with friends - a group whose Tennessee location owes a lot to Trotz during his time with the Predators.
It's all part of a homecoming tour that is no doubt emotional for Trotz; to get to return to the city where his NHL coaching career started, and to do so as the bench boss for the best team in the League, has to be a pretty proud moment for him and his family. He's still beloved in Nashville, and it's probably a pretty safe bet that the ovation he'll receive on Saturday and Sunday will be one of the loudest.
All in all, it's shaping up to be a potentially fun weekend for all involved - one last hurrah before the season kicks into overdrive... one last game that doesn't matter before they all do. Enjoy!