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Veterans still dominate all-star defence corps

In today's NHL notebook, we'll ponder the absence of youth on the all-star defence corps; calculate the chances of a team making a post all-star playoff run; float a random trade rumour; and name the ideal personality to go last overall in today's all-star fantasy draft.

Youth is an ever-present watchword in today's NHL and youth will be on display this weekend at the NHL all-star game in the person of Jeff Skinner, the youngest player ever to participate in an all-star game, at 18 years and eight months. Other just-out-of-their-teens stars such as Steven Stamkos, Matt Duchene and Patrick Kane will also participate. There will also be a dozen other youngsters involved in the skills competition Saturday night, just so that they can get a taste of what an NHL marketing extravaganza feels like.

However, there hasn't been quite such a rush to stardom on the blue line, where the main man is once again the venerable Nicklas Lidstrom, the NHL's best again at the age of 40 after a year in which he apparently ceded the crown to Duncan Keith, Mike Green and Drew Doughty, last year's Norris finalists. Keith and Green are in Raleigh, but not having anywhere near the seasons they had a year ago; and Doughty didn't even qualify, notwithstanding that he became a household name in Canada last February, thanks to a brilliant performance in the Winter Olympics.

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Doughty was the second player chosen in Stamkos's draft year of 2008, which was immediately dubbed The Year Of The Defenceman, given that blueliners went Nos. 2 to 5 that year. It was Doughty to the Los Angeles Kings, then Zach Bogosian to Atlanta, Alex Pietrangelo to St. Louis and, finally, Luke Schenn to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Doughty, Bogosian and Schenn all cracked their respective NHL lineups when they were 18 and appeared to be on their way.

Pietrangelo took longer than the others to make it, but he's virtually matched Doughty in scoring performance this year, and made a quantum leap forward in his game. Schenn has been better this year than last year, while Bogosian is playing down the depth chart in Atlanta behind Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom, who was picked for the all-star game, along with his defence partner, but had to bow out because of injury.

Doughty, meanwhile, hasn't been nearly the same force, playing a little more of error-prone hockey. He always played with a gambler's instinct; this year, it hasn't quite paid off as well. He's struggled and so have the Kings, who face probably the biggest test now coming out of the break - 10 games in a row on the road, which will make or break their season. Right now, they are in a pack of six teams separated by two points, fighting for seventh and eighth place in the Western Conference.

The Kings really thought they were on their way this season. One NHL GM said he thought they were the best team in the Western Conference in the first month. Since then nothing - or close to nothing. They need more from Doughty, more from their secondary scorers and ideally, more from general manager Dean Lombardi, who needs to find that one experienced intangible piece that seems to be missing from the Kings' puzzle at the moment. Who knew that they would miss the steadying presence of Sean O'Donnell so much this season?

CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS: I have a little bit of an old-school attitude when it comes to filing things away, and this morning, I produced from my briefcase the standings the last time he NHL took a break for one of these corporate trade shows that features a little shinny on a Sunday afternoon.

That happened two years ago in Montreal - the Olympics pre-empted all-star festivities last year - and St. Louis arrived at that point in the season dead last in the Western Conference standings with 42 points in 49 games. Of course, this is the age of parity where lip service is often paid to the old bromide that it isn't over until it's over - and that year, it wasn't. The Blues gained nine places over the final two-and-a-half months, finished sixth overall, and - completely gassed by playing playoff style hockey over that period of time - were swept out in the first round by the Vancouver Canucks.

Still, they did it and that's what a lot of would-be playoff contenders want to believe can happen to them, especially those teams that hit the break on something of a roll. Columbus also was out of the mix two years ago, but went from ninth to seventh. The two teams that were bumped: Edmonton, which fell from sixth to 11th; and Phoenix which dropped from fifth to 13th. St. Louis needed to gain nine points in the final two-and-a-months to qualify two years ago and did - so, for example, when the Flames talk about being in the race, even though they've played more games in the conference than anyone but Anaheim, well, they're not wrong. It could happen.

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The one thing to keep in mind is that at most, one or two teams will trade places from here to the end - and it's still reasonable to think 95 points will be required, in the West anyway, to qualify for postseason play. Accordingly, any sort of slump now, at a time when a team will still need to win two out of three, will be killing.

ETC ETC: "The six inches between my brain is more hurt than any part of my body right now. And that needs the rest."

That's Paul Mara, the Anaheim Ducks' defenceman, to the L.A. Times, when talking about the need for the break, more mental than physical for the vast majority of players, and the reason why even the ones that will attend this weekend's activities in Raleigh will not be fully engaged in the process. It's just too hard to keep bringing the 'A' game in a fluffy fun shinny outing ... That includes perhaps just one exception, the St. Louis Blues' extrovert David Backes, who is leading his team in scoring, made an impact on the U.S. Olympic team last season and is appearing in his first career all-star game. Backes' name doesn't really resonate with the hockey public, however, and that puts him in danger of going last in today's fantasy draft. So passing through Calgary this week, Backes made a joke of it: That if he does slip to the end - as he did in the mock draft conducted by Coyotes' players Shane Doan and Paul Bissonette for TSN last night - opponents better keep their heads up; he's going out there to throw retaliatory hits ... In some ways, Backes would be good as the last man standing, because he has the personality and sense of humour to deal with it. Not sure that if it happens to be Phil Kessel he would handle it as well ... The Blues limped into the all-star break 2-8-2 in their last 12 and five out of a playoff spot. Two years ago, they made up nine points to make the playoffs - and figure to get Andy McDonald back soon after the break ... Nobody does blockbusters deals any more and rarely would a team give up a bluechip prospect early in their careers because it is just so fraught with risk. But with Pietrangelo's development, you wonder if they would ever put Erik Johnson's rights into play? Johnson was the first player chosen in the 2006 draft, is still considered a player with a major upside, and would probably attract all sorts of interest, if St. Louis ever thought to part with him ... Meanwhile, down in Silicon Valley, the Sharks were tied with Colorado for eighth in the conference. Two years ago, they were 22 points clear of the last playoff spot and in cruise control. This year, they'll need to battle to the end.

The usual suspects who annually make it go in San Jose were all excused from the all-star game this year: No Joe Thornton, no Dany Heatley, no Patrick Marleau, who'd combined for 12 all-star game career appearances - and Heatley was the MVP back in 2003. The Sharks had been sputtering all year, but won four in a row and then ran into Los Angeles Wednesday night, where they lost in a shootout.

AND FINALLY: Only two former all-star MVPs are playing in this year's game: Eric Staal, who won in 2008 and Danny Briere, who won in 2007. The last all-star MVP was Montreal's Alexei Kovalev, who didn't qualify for this year's game. Everybody else is retired: Joe Sakic, the 2004 winner, Eric Daze, who won in 2002, Bill Guerein in 2001, Pavel Bure in 2000 and Wayne Gretzky, who won the last of his three all-star MVP awards in 1999.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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