ST. LOUIS -- Even when he skips the event, Alex Ovechkin is the talk of the NHL All-Star Game.
Ovechkin closed out the first half of the season with back-to-back hat tricks and eight goals in three games. He sits at 692 career goals, putting him just eight away from becoming the eighth player in NHL history to reach 700 goals. At 34, Ovechkin has a realistic shot at challenging Wayne Gretzky's all-time NHL record of 894 goals.
"If anybody's going to do it, it's obviously him," said Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs on the eve of NHL All-Star Weekend. "I think when it's all said and done, he can break that record and I think it would be pretty sweet to see."
Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks, who has 381 career goals in 13 seasons, doesn't see a reason why Ovechkin couldn't break the record.
"I mean, 700 goals is a lot of goals and I think he's still pretty young to reach that milestone," he said.
But Ovechkin won't be scoring any goals in St. Louis this weekend. For the second straight season, he's skipping the All-Star Game and will serve a mandatory one-game suspension when the Capitals visit Montreal on Monday.
"I have to listen to my body. I have to get ready for the second half of the year. I have to be healthy and focus on different things," Ovechkin said in announcing his decision on Dec. 27.
Kane has yet to skip an All-Star Game in his career, having played in nine.
"I think it's important, first and foremost, to represent the NHL and the Blackhawks. It's an honor to be selected. It's pretty rare to see guys selected every year to be in the All-Star Game," he said. "And you don't want to take the rest and miss a game. You want to play as many games as you can."
Kane said he understands why Ovechkin made the decision.
"I think everyone's gotta make their own decision and all you can do is respect his. His team's in a good position," Kane said of the Capitals, who lead the NHL with 71 points. "He feels he needs to rest for them to go on a long playoff run. That's his decision, you know, I mean, I guess he can respect that, too."
The Blackhawks, meanwhile, are three points out of the last wild-card spot in the West.
"You look at his team, his team's first in their division, they're gonna make the playoffs," Kane said. "It's probably not that big of a deal for him to miss a game, right? And, you know for us, we're fighting for a playoff spot. I think it's an honor to be here. I think it's pretty special to create some memories here. And also for me, I feel like I wouldn't want to miss a regular-season game especially given the spot our team is in."
The NHL had little concern over Ovechkin's absence two years ago, after leading the Capitals to the Stanley Cup in the previous season. But skipping two All-Star Games in a row is "probably something we do need to address with the players' association, so it doesn't become a trend," deputy commissioner Bill Daly told the ESPN on Ice podcast this month.
Ovechkin's coach, Todd Reirden, will be behind the bench for the Metro Division. Naturally, he doesn't want to miss Ovechkin for a game. But he understands his winger's decision.
"Obviously, it's a difficult decision and a decision that he spent a lot of time with," Reirden said. "I think at this time of his career, he knows what he needs to do to make himself be the best player that he can in the second half of the year and, in particular, to go on the run that we had two years ago. He felt like this is the right thing. It's obviously difficult to be missing him for a [regular-season] game, but his ultimate goal is winning another Stanley Cup. If he thinks this is the best way to do it, then I'm all in."