James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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NHL 17 is out today; Here’s what people think so far

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NHL 17 is out for Xbox One and Playstation 4 today, so maybe it’s a little early to draw an outright consensus.

Plenty of reviews have already surfaced, however, so those waiting with a sweaty finger over the “purchase” button might get a decent idea of what to expect.

In short? Expect what you normally would from an annual sports release: refinement rather than a revolution. At least, that’s what reviews seem to indicate so far.

Destructoid captured much of that spirit:

When compared to NHL 15, NHL 17 is miles ahead; when compared to NHL 16, it’s incrementally better. That’s the EA Sports way. There are some new features and improvements, but nothing mind-blowingly innovative. That’s perfectly fine. There’s a good hockey game at the core, and a lot of options on the periphery. That’s all we ever wanted.

It’s interesting to see that comparison, as Kotaku’s Mike Fahey seems to indicate that this is a year about baby steps as well:

Sometimes the annual installment of a sports game feels like a brand new experience, sometimes it feels like same thing, different year. NHL 17, available for play now on EA Access ahead of next week’s release, is definitely the latter.

(Pro tip: if you have an Xbox One and you’re really sweating the decision, trying it out on EA Access could be a good option. Yes, you’d be out a Netflix-style monthly fee, but their setup would allow you to play around with the game for 10 hours. That should be a fine gauge for whether or not you want to continue selling hot dogs and maybe get around to playing hockey.)

Thumbing through reviews (Metacritic provides Rotten Tomatoes-like listings of reviews if you want to survey them), reactions seem positive though not necessarily emphatic.

It might be the sort of situation where NHL 17 isn’t going to convert people who don’t like the EA style of hockey, but should be solid for addicts. Those who bought NHL 16 shouldn’t expect a huge improvement.

For some, such as US Gamer’s Kat Bailey, that’s a little frustrating:

NHL 17 has some real strengths, but it still feels like it hasn’t quite made it out of the previous generation. The gameplay is strong but increasingly dated; the feature set feels haphazard, and there are lots of niggling quality-of-life issues.

More NHL 17 fun

Beefing about player ratings

Customization is the key

Vladimir Tarasenko gets the cover

Alex Ovechkin: Not the biggest fan of the NHL’s current playoff format

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Alex Ovechkin-haters aren’t going to like this, but that doesn’t automatically mean his point isn’t valid.

Simply put, Ovechkin believes that the NHL’s current playoff format doesn’t really do a great job rewarding the team that wins the Presidents’ Trophy.

He explained as much to CSN Mid-Atlantic’s Tarik El-Bashir.

“The schedule in the playoffs is kind of weird,” Ovechkin said, “because you play first team and fourth and then you play against Pittsburgh. … Then you think, why [do we] need to win Presidents’ Trophy to play against the best team?

“It’s tough to think about it. It’s kind of weird, but there’s nothing you can do.”

Again, Ovechkin’s critics will do what they normally do with this.

/Waits for them to grumble about excuses.

Even if you believe that he’s just griping, the Washington Capitals star has a point. It’s a little odd that Washington (120 points in the regular season to win the Presidents’ Trophy) faced the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.

The Penguins didn’t just finish 2015-16 on a hot streak. They collected 104 standings points, second-most in the Eastern Conference. It’s understandable that Ovechkin feels a little bewildered that he wouldn’t take on such an opponent in, say, the third round.

(Which he’s never seen, as his haters will surely scream at their screens.)

The NHL has plenty of reasons to go with the current format, from encouraging rivalries to possibly limiting travel headaches. Just about any setup will inspire some complaints.

Ovechkin’s free to criticize the format, but the bottom line is that his Capitals will need to beat some tough playoff opponents regardless of how a bracket rolls out. If they’re not needing to face the Penguins, there are plenty of other worthy adversaries, such as the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Yes, Stephen Gionta is getting an Islanders tryout

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Following up on an earlier report, the New York Islanders did indeed hand Stephen Gionta a PTO.

A certain segment of Islanders fans might be delighted/angered by the Islanders flirting with signing a long-time member of the New Jersey Devils organization. Gionta, 32, played all 82 games for the Devils last season.

The more interesting aspect comes down to how much of a chance he really has to make a dent on the roster.

As Mike Halford notes, the Islanders have eventually signed former Devils before after trying them out, as Steve Bernier aced his chance. With 270 regular season games and some playoff experience under his belt, you could do worse than Gionta as a depth forward.

On the other hand, Lighthouse Hockey wonders if he might just count as training camp “filler.”

Islanders GM Garth Snow has a knack for unearthing under-the-radar gems, but Gionta would likely be satisfied with merely landing a contract.

Doughty: Canada’s experience trumps North America’s skill

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If you want to make a chic top pick for the 2016 World Cup and believe that Sweden’s not exciting enough, maybe you’re going to tab North America.

It’s easy to see why, from their dominant work in exhibitions to the bulletin board material they’re providing thanks to a health dose of self-confidence.

They might not be able to pull the “No one believes in us” routine, though.

Jonathan Toews made it clear that North America is on Canada’s radar, for one, as he told Sportsnet.

“It would be stupid to disregard a team like that,” Toews said. “I think they’re going to come out flying, there’s no pressure on them. … They’re going to make you worry about their offensive weapons every time they have the puck. There’s nobody you can take lightly, and especially them I would say.”

Drew Doughty doesn’t seem thrilled about comments such as those made by Nathan MacKinnon about North America being the most skilled. Either way, he believes that experience will win out.

Let’s not kid ourselves, though. Both teams are deeply talented, and Canada has plenty of guys who are still in their prime. Doughty, for instance, is somehow just 26 despite already compiling a Hall of Fame-worthy resume.

Canada and North America are separated into different groups, so here’s hoping we get to see them face off.

Another hockey genius believes that hockey needs more genius

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At times, it feels like hockey coaches sap the joy out of the sport in the pursuit of wins. The painful thing to admit is that such tactics are usually justified.

We’ve seen quite a few instances in which a great artist of the game finds the sport’s creativity a little lacking, and we can add Pavel Datsyuk to that list.

Some might bristle at what the departed NHL star had to say to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but it could be because the truth hurts.

“There are not many creative players now,” Datsyuk said on Sunday. “It’s less and less every year. There’s lots of talent, but teams are playing more systems.”

It’s important to note that the stickhandling magician isn’t really saying that players are bad. Instead, he’s arguing that much of that skill is being suffocated by excessive structure.

One cannot help but find the timing of these comments rather amusing, as the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons recently reported that Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg told the Detroit Red Wings that they wouldn’t re-sign if Mike Babcock was still around.

Why it was time for Mike Babcock to leave the Red Wings: In exit interviews in different seasons before this one, both Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk told management they would not re-sign with the Wings if Babcock was still the coach.

There are murmurs here and there that Babcock might scare off the occasional free agent, yet few would deny his acumen as a head coach.

In a way, that’s the point, really: to be effective, sometimes you have to be so rigid that you bore everyone to tears.

Circling back to an earlier point, Datsyuk is far from the only player who has criticized the style of play in the NHL as of late.

Losing a lot of Datsyuks

Some of the brightest minds align with the former Red Wings star. Consider what Wayne Gretzky said to the New York Times about the more grinding mindset in the modern game.

“When I was 10 years old, they’d throw a puck on the ice and say, ‘Go score,’” Gretzky said. “Now, at 10 years old, the kids are taught to play in their lanes. Defensemen stay back. Everybody blocks shots … It’s changed completely. I think the biggest thing we’ve lost is a little bit of our creativity and imagination in general.”

Igor Larianov, a legend so brainy he earned the nickname “The Professor,” seemed heartbroken in discussing this philosophical change in an article for The Players’ Tribune. This one line seems especially prescient since it came before Datsyuk decided to leave:

We lose a lot of Pavel Datsyuks to the closed-minded nature of the AHL and NHL.

(Chilling to think about, right?)

***

As we ponder why scoring continues to drop (or at best, continues to stagnate), there are methods to boost the game a bit here and there.

Bringing about more lasting changes would probably go a lot deeper, however, as you’d likely need to find a way to encourage coaches to do the thing they seem to fear the most: take risks.

Safe might not be death in the NHL, but it sure is boring.