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NHL 12 review roundup: Is it the best game yet or has the series reached a plateau?

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With training camps starting up around the NHL, the hockey-starved masses are already being thrown some meat to chew on. For those who might not be satiated by rookies trying to nail down roster spots and new players/coaches getting acquainted with teams, there’s another option to try to satisfy that hunger: video games. This time around, there’s only one major title to choose from: EA Sports’ NHL 12, which released on September 13.

While there are other reviews that haven’t poured in yet, a good chunk of reactions filtered through blogs, gaming Web sites and various other outlets already. For the most part, the reviews have been very positive, but there also are some naysayers – including one whose negativity might qualify as extreme. With a few days for experts to digest the game out of the way, let’s take a look at how critics reacted to the new game.

A sampling of emphatic praise

1UP.com called it “the series’ greatest achievement” in their A- review:

This is the best version of NHL in the past three years — it’s like the previous versions were simply leading up to this release. Everything looks and feels and plays as it should; a fine balance of entertainment and realism.

Gaming Excellence gave it a 9.2 (“Excellent”) rating:

To be honest, I’m usually in the camp that skips every second NHL title because it’s hard to justify what seems like a few enhancements and a roster update for the price of a AAA game, but this time they’ve done a fantastic job with improvements that are very hard to resist.

Gaming Age gave it a 95 percent (“Superlative”) score:

What more can be said other than, NHL fans need to buy NHL 12 if only to play the best representation of the sport ever created. I don’t think I can praise it any more than that.

Are the improvements too subtle?

There aren’t many major criticisms of the game (at least as far as giving it a bad “score”), but the most consistent line of complaints indicate that the tweaks, new features and improvements aren’t enough to justify a purchase if gamers already own NHL 11. Metacritic captures many of those “it’s a great game and all, but … ” reviews, including this one from GameShark.com.

To be fair there are a lot of changes and tweaks made to the NHL 11 design, but many of them are so small to be nearly unnoticeable. As great as NHL 12 is, and it is a great game, it’s not a giant leap from NHL 11. Is that enough to warrant another $60? Only you can answer that one.

Adam Najberg of the Wall Street Journal blog Speak Easy goes as far as to wonder if EA should put the series on the shelf altogether in what must be the harshest major review for the series in a long time.

Maybe a deep cleansing breath or a hiatus would help. It certainly has for other EA Sports game franchises. On the basketball side, EA has taken a breather for a couple of years, trying to retool and reinvigorate a tired NBA game franchise that wasn’t up to snuff.

(snip)

It’s not really for me to say, but until EA Sports can really come up with something new and refreshing, maybe it should consider putting its NHL game series on ice.

(Quick aside: however you might feel about the direction of the NHL series, bringing up the NBA Live/Elite hiatus won’t improve the odds for a hockey break.)

NHL 12 producer Sean Ramjasingh addressed the question of NHL 12 being a big enough improvement over NHL 11 in an interview earlier last week.

“I think this year is probably the most authentic game we’ve made; it’s leaps and bounds over NHL 11,” Ramjasingh said. “The incredible team we have here busts their butts all year to put over 300 gameplay refinements in, so as you play the game, all that depth is going to start to come through. The real game-changer for me is the hat trick of game innovations.”

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This post provides a solid rundown of that “hat trick” of alterations, which seemingly impressed most critics. The ultimate criticisms come from peoples’ wallets, though, so tell us how you feel. Does the game seem worth your money, whether you already paid for it or are primed to buy it in the future? Let us know in the comments (and expect PHT’s take soon).

Martin Jones is still pretty ‘new’ to this

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 06:  Martin Jones #31 of the San Jose Sharks stands in goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Four of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 6, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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You’d have to be an awfully harsh critic not to be impressed with what Martin Jones did last season.

He “didn’t flinch” under the pressure of a run to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer described his efforts as some of the best championship round work of “all-time.”

His signing really made the Sharks look smart. With a strong .919 career save percentage in the regular season and a fantastic .923 playoff save percentage, the 26-year-old has succeeded more or less whenever called upon.

That brings us to the interesting part, though: there’s not a lot of tape, so to speak, on Jones as an NHL goalie.

Small sample

The 2015-16 season was just his third of NHL action, and he’s now at just 99 regular season appearances. That fantastic run of 24 playoff games makes up a significant chunk of his overall experience at the top level.

Jones has excelled when tested, but if you have any concern with him, it’s just that he’s relatively inexperienced at carrying that No. 1 workload.

He started in 65 games during the 2015-16 season, towering over his work as a Kings backup (15 appearances in 2014-15, 19 in 2013-14).

On the bright side, the Sharks have additional evidence that he’s not just a flash in the pan.

Strong numbers at each level

Looking at his AHL stats and even going as far back as his WHL days, his numbers have almost always been good to downright impressive.

It all continues the pattern of Jones looking like the real deal, but next season presents the latest test for the promising goalie.

So far, he’s passed all of them with flying colors.

What will Brent Burns’ new contract look like?

SAN JOSE, CA - FEBRUARY 29:  Brent Burns #88 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after scoring a goal in the second period against the Montreal Canadiens at SAP Center on February 29, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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This is part of Sharks day at PHT…

There’s only one Brent Burns, that much is clear. Both on and off the ice, there’s no one like him.

So, what do you pay a guy that’s always imitated, never duplicated?

That’s the dilemma the San Jose Sharks will be faced with in the coming weeks/months.

If you were impressed with Bruns’ 17 goals and 60 points in 2014-15, then his 27 goals and 75 points in 2015-16 was out of this world.

Over the last three seasons, not many forwards have produced as much as Burns, let alone defensemen.

Since being acquired by San Jose in 2011, Burns has hit double digit goals in all but one year (he scored nine in 30 games in 2012-13).

“You know how we feel about Brent. Phenomenal year,” GM Doug Wilson said back in June. “When we acquired him it was a big piece to acquire. There’s no doubt he’s important to us. We want him. I think he loves being here. Those conversations will take place shortly.”

Time to talk numbers…

It sounds like Burns enjoy playing in San Jose, so him taking a bit of a discount is possible. But if we look at the closest comparable…

Dustin Byfuglien, who is 31-years-old like Burns, signed a five-year $38 million contract with the Jets this winter. That comes out to an AAV of $7.6 million.

Both are big, physically imposing and have put up some great numbers in the last few years.

Over the last three seasons, Byfuglien has scored 19, 18 and 20 goals for a total of 57. Burns has scored 27, 17 and 22 for a total of 66.

That’s not a huge difference over three years, but Byfuglien wasn’t coming off a 27-goal season and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final when he signed his contract.

Although we haven’t really heard much regarding Burns’ contract demands, it wouldn’t be shocking for the final cap number to be in the 8 or 9 million range.

Poll: Will the Sharks make it back to the Stanley Cup Final?

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 25:  Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly presents the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl to Joe Pavelski #8 and the San Jose Sharks after their 5-2 win over the St. Louis Blues in Game Six of the Western Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center on May 25, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Not many people expected San Jose to be in the Stanley Cup Final in 2015-16, but with expectations at an all-time low, they did it.

San Jose has put together some talented teams and before last season, they weren’t able to get over the hump. But now that they’ve gotten over the hump, expectations are back up.

How realistic are these expectations though?

On paper, the Sharks are still loaded. They didn’t lose much this off-season and managed to add speedster Mikkel Boedker in free agency.

Still, when you’re dealing with a number of veterans, you never know when their production will start to dip.

Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski are all over 30. Marleau and Thornton are 36 and 37-years-old and they’re entering the final year of their contracts.

The Stanley Cup hangover is real. Although the Sharks didn’t win it, those veterans went four rounds and played in some grueling games along the way. Will they be in tip-top shape come October?

On a more positive note, those veterans are surrounded by some good young players. Logan Couture has developed into a go-to guy, Tomas Hertl proved to be a difference maker at times last year, Joonas Donskoi scored some big goals in the playoffs and prospects like Mirco Mueller, Nikolay Goldobin and Timo Meier are on their way.

The team also has some remarkable depth on defense, as Burns is joined by Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Paul Martin, Justin Braun and a few other key contributors.

Between the pipes, Martin Jones‘ first season as a starting goaltender went pretty well.

“A special group,” San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said after losing in the Stanley Cup Final, per the team’s website . “But only one team can win. That doesn’t take anything away from what those guys accomplished. I don’t think anyone should ever question the leadership or the character or the will of the group of men in there. I think it’s been misplaced for a decade.

“I would hope they answered some questions. Let’s be honest. Not many people had us making the playoffs. Not many people had us beating [the Los Angeles Kings in the first round]. On an on. I thought a lot of questions were answered by that group.”

It won’t be easy for them to make it back to the final. They’ll have some stiff competition in Los Angeles, Anaheim, Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville and any other team that might surprise.

So, can this “special group” do it all over again next season?

Time to vote!

Under Pressure: Patrick Marleau

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 04:  Patrick Marleau #12 of the San Jose Sharks during the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on April 4, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Sharks 5-3.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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This is part of Sharks day at PHT…

Before the 2016 playoffs, there had been a lot of disappointment in San Jose and Patrick Marleau has been there for all of it.

Over the last 18 seasons, Marleau has been the most productive Shark during the regular season. Unfortunately, he’s also one of the players that’s received the most criticism during San Jose’s playoff failures.

Last season, the 36-year-old saw his point total dip for the third straight year. Marleau was still productive (25 goals and 48 points in 82 games), just not as productive as he had been in previous seasons.

It’s no secret that Marleau’s been the talk of trade rumors for years. Even at the beginning of last season, it was reported that he submitted a list of three teams he was willing to be traded to.

“I’ve been here forever and it’s been a great place to play,” Marleau said last November, per CSN Bay Area. “I’m not going to get into specifics or anything like that. There’s always been rumors in my career. I don’t really want to feed into it anymore or comment on it. I don’t want it to become a distraction or anything.”

The Sharks held on to Marleau, and even though the rumors have died down, his days might still be numbered in San Jose (for real this time).

Marleau will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and although he’ll probably make less than his current $6.66 million AAV, it could be the end of the line between these two sides.

The Sharks have younger players like Tomas Hertl, Mikkel Boedker and a number of prospects like Nikolay Goldobin, who will be ready to jump into the lineup soon.

With an aging core, Marleau might be the first veteran San Jose cuts ties with because Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski are still performing at a high level.

Also, the fact that Thornton and Brent Burns both need new contracts after next season certainly doesn’t help Marleau’s case. And in two years from now, Tomas Hertl will be looking for a bump in pay as well.

The odds seem to be stacked against Marleau. If he wants to remain a Shark, he’ll have to take a significant pay cut or have a huge bounce back season.