NHL ’12 video preview: EA Sports boasts ‘hat trick’ of innovations

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We don’t mean to rub it in, but opening night in October is a long way away. That being said, there are distractions for hockey fans who cannot get enough. Obviously, the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and free agent frenzy provided equal portions silliness and hope for puck enthusiasts. PHT will carry you through these warm, hockey-free months with updates regarding the latest moves, looks into the future and features to tickle your fancy.

One could probably consider September the month in which the light at the end of the tunnel gets a little bigger and brighter. That’s when training camp starts and it’s also the time of year when the next round of NHL video games are released. For the second consecutive year, it seems like EA Sports’ best-selling NHL series won’t have major competition (besides other sports games, TV shows and other bigger picture distractions) with the 2K series in road kill mode.

For those who worry that the software giant will rest on its laurels without another puck-based game making them sweat, it seems like the company will try to bolster its impressive foundation. We’ve already covered the fact that the game will include a Winter Classic mode and shared the September 13 release date/first preview video, but EA provided a more complete view of the biggest changes in store for NHL ’12 recently.

EA unveiled its “hat trick” of innovations, which you can check out in this video from GameTrailers.com.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Here are some of my observations about each innovation after watching that video and reading up on how these changes might impact the game.

1. “Anticipation AI” – The company claims that computer players will do a better job of anticipating the puck changing hands and generally reacting to on-ice events in a more organic way.

2. “Full contact physics” – As I discussed in Todd Marchant’s retirement post, speed used to be an overriding asset in hockey video games. There’s no doubt that fast skating is important in today’s game, but the perceived disparity often makes bigger players seem useless. The reality is that big players are often very useful in the NHL, especially in front of the net. NHL ’12 claims to address that issue better than before. (To be fair, the series made some progress in this area already, but this might be the big leap some were waiting for.)

3. “Dynamic goalies” – This innovation strikes me as the next installment of the “broken sticks” gamble from last year. There are plenty of ways that this could go wrong (example: will the game know if you’re trying to shoot or if you want to initiate contact with a goalie?) but it could add some needed realism to the game. If nothing else, it would be great to see more personality from goalies.

Things look promising overall, but it’s tough to overlook how awkward Zdeno Chara’s battles in front of the net ended up looking. It’s something that Operation Sports also tackled in their preview.

In terms of impact, I do think the physics engine is the biggest deal of the three. It essentially ties into a lot of what’s happening with goalies this year, and it also works to improve and fix much of what was wrong with the physics last year. However, I want to start with a negative here and point out that some ugly animations crop up with the implementation of this physics engine. I think it’s the price you pay, at least for now, to experience more organic moments, but it doesn’t excuse the look of some of the interactions. For example, nudging and bumping some players from behind causes the puck carrier to react in some questionable ways. It’s nice to see some new stumbles, but it’s just not that common for players to be checked down or pushed to the ice from behind as much as they are here. On top of that, some goofiness crops up when the goalies interact with players.

It looks like NHL ’12 could be a significant upgrade over NHL ’11 if EA’s innovations work out as well as advertised. The series has a great track record of delivering on their promises so far, but we’ll keep you updated as more information surfaces and the September 13 release date approaches.

(Screenshot via Operation Sports.)

Blues re-sign goalie Binnington

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Jordan Binnington, the netminder taken 88th overall by the Blues in 2011, has signed a one-year, two-way extension, the club announced on Friday.

Binnington, 24, has played almost exclusively with St. Louis’ AHL affiliate since turning pro four years ago, though he did spend some time in the ECHL.

Last year he worked alongside Ville Husso and Pheonix Copley in the Wolves’ goal, and will likely do so again with Husso moving forward (Copley was traded to Washington as part of the Kevin Shattenkirk deal.)

Binnington’s NHL body of work is brief — one 13-minute relief appearance during the ’15-16 campaign. Right now he’s jockeying with Husso to be the organization’s No. 3 netminder, a potential call-up should either Jake Allen or Carter Hutton get hurt.

Chris Neil wants a one-way deal, and says he’s received offers

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Here’s what we know about veteran tough guy Chris Neil.

He won’t be back in Ottawa, the city where he’s spent his entire 15-year career. But he does want to keep playing. What’s more, he’s not ready to accept a two-way deal or training camp PTO, because offers for a one-way deal have already come in.

“The offers I’ve had so far haven’t been [two way or PTO]. They’ve been a one-way deal,” the 37-year-old forward said, per the Ottawa Sun. “For me, that’s what I’d be looking for.

“It’s up in the air right now. There’s some interest. There’s some teams you’d prefer over others.”

Neil was informed by the Sens last month that he wouldn’t be brought back next season, which marked the end of an era. Ottawa took Neil in the sixth round of the 1998 draft, and he made his NHL debut three years later. He went on to become one of the club’s most recognizable players, in large part to his pugilistic ways — during the 2003-04 campaign, he fought a remarkable 24 times.

That trademark toughness could be something teams are interested in bringing aboard. There were rumblings St. Louis was eyeing him after trading Ryan Reaves to Pittsburgh, with Fox Sports Midwest reporting that Neil had three offers on the table.

If there’s one thing that’s for certain, it’s that Neil believes he can still play. After learning that he wouldn’t be brought back to the Canadian capital, he had some choice words for Sens head coach Guy Boucher and the perceived lack of opportunity Boucher afforded him.

“I have a lot of respect for Randy [Lee, Sens assistant GM] and Pierre [Dorion, GM] … I think, if it was up to them, I’d be back,” Neil explained, per the Citizen. “But they kind of put it in the coach’s hands and that had a lot to do with it. For whatever reason, Guy [Boucher] never really gave me the chance to show I can play.

“Even before I got hurt, I was a healthy scratch for a couple of games and I saw the writing on the wall.”

After tough year in Florida, Smith ready to reunite with ‘players-first’ Gallant

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For Reilly Smith, the anticipation of playing for Las Vegas next season goes beyond playing for the league’s newest team.

It’s also about playing for his old coach, Gerard Gallant.

“I think he kind of embodies the motto that it’s a players-first league and everything kind of revolves around that,” Smith said, per the Golden Knights website. “I know particularly last year in the Florida Panthers organization, there was a lot of change and things going on and I know one of the main messages that he always put forth was that whatever goes on outside, make sure you guys are a tight-knit group inside and play for each other.

“That was one thing that he definitely tried to convey to the team and try to get us to rally behind.”

Smith’s time in Florida was a two-part tale.

After coming over from Boston as part of the Jimmy Hayes swap — Marc Savard’s contract was also shipped to Florida — Smith had a terrific ’15-16 campaign under Gallant, posting career highs in goals (25) while helping the Panthers qualify for the playoffs.

In the postseason, he was a consistent scoring threat, finishing the series with four goals and eight points in six games.

Year two wasn’t nearly as successful.

Gallant was fired early on — controversially so — and Smith’s production dropped off. He ended with just 15 goals and 37 points, disappointing figures that were exacerbated by the big five-year, $25 million extension he signed in the offseason.

Reading between the lines, fair to suggest Smith struggled with the coaching change from Gallant to Tom Rowe. Things came to a head in early March, when Rowe called out Smith following a loss to Dallas.

On the Stars’ first goal, Smith seemed to lose his man in front of the net. Rowe was asked about it, and responded.

“We went over that exact play in team meeting and we haven’t learned our lesson yet,” he said. “That is the problem.”

Rowe wasn’t done there. Later, he was asked about Dallas’ winning goal, which may have been deflected in off a skate. The criticism went back to Smith.

“I don’t know,” said Rowe. “All I know is Reilly Smith was blowing the zone doing exactly what he is not supposed to be doing.”

Smith will certainly be a guy to watch this season. He’s still only 26 years old, looking for a bounce back, and noted that Gallant gave him the opportunity to play a larger role than he had with the Bruins (and, prior to that, the Stars).

One wonders if that’ll happen again, this time in Vegas.

Subban ‘can’t really envision’ Habs without Markov

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The Montreal Canadiens’ defense looks a lot different than it did two years ago.

For the second offseason in a row, the Canadiens have walked away from a seemingly important puck-moving defenseman. Last summer, they traded P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber, and yesterday they announced that they were parting ways with Andrei Markov.

Markov and Subban played a lot of minutes together during their time time in Montreal. The two even became good friends (Subban attended Markov’s wedding earlier this month).

Needless to say, when Subban found out that Markov wasn’t going to be returning to the Canadiens, he was pretty surprised.

“I can’t really envision the Montreal Canadiens without Andrei Markov on the blue line. That’s No. 1. Even before I played for the team, I watched him play for the team and be their best defenseman,” The Preds defenseman told NHL.com’s Arpon Basu. “Even while I was there, I still thought he was our best defenseman, even though a lot of people thought because of what I got paid it was me. You can’t really put a price tag on how he plays because he’s so smart, the way he sees the ice.”

With those two players no longer on the team, it’ll be interesting to see who moves the puck for the Habs. Shea Weber is still playing at a high level, but carrying the puck up the ice isn’t his strongest attribute.

GM Marc Bergevin added Mark Streit, Karl Alzner and David Schlemko this offseason, but none of those guys can do the things Markov is capable of doing when it comes to moving the puck efficiently.

Is there another move on the horizon?

Well, Montreal has a huge hole on the left side of their defense and they have over $8 million in cap space. Maybe there is something brewing.

Related:

Andrei Markov opts for KHL after saying goodbye to Canadiens

Habs president pens glowing farewell letter to Markov

Habs sign Streit–is he Markov’s replacement?