Yzerman on trading Kubina: “We see potential opportunity to improve our club”

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Shortly after holding Pavel Kubina out of practice to “protect our interest”, Lighting GM Steve Yzerman spoke with the Tampa Tribune about what’s in store for his veteran blueliner.

“We’re making our decisions on a player-by-player and opportunity-by-opportunity basis,” Yzerman said. “We see potential opportunity to improve our club with regards to Pavel.”

Translation: Someone (maybe more than one) has expressed interest in acquiring the 34-year-old defenseman.

Because of this interest, Yzerman has asked Kubina to work within the confines of his modified no-trade clause and provide a list of teams to which he is willing to be traded. Also, not to practice or play anymore.

“In the interim, we’ve decided to protect our interest and keep Pavel off the ice until this situation is resolved,” Yzerman said. “The broader strategy is we want to be a better team in the future. We want to be a Cup contender at some point, and we’re going to have to do some things to become that.”

Kubina becoming a commodity shouldn’t come as a surprise. Many of the defensemen expected to be available at the deadline — Francois Beauchemin, Tim Gleason, Andy Sutton — have re-upped with their respective teams, meaning there are fewer options for plug-and-play blueliners at this stage of the season.

Kubina’s had an average year (3G-8A-11PTS) but is still a big, right-handed shooting defenseman that can play 20 minutes a night and has plenty of playoff experience, winning a Stanley Cup with Tampa in 2004.

What ‘NHL 19’ is missing: An ‘NHL 20’ wish list

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On Tuesday, PHT broke down the biggest changes EA Sports’ “NHL 19” brings to the table. While we’re still not so sure about the death of poke-checks,* the gist is that those tweaks present a big upgrade over “NHL 18.”

If you’ve spent a moment on the Internet, or really with other humans, you know that there’s a urge for even more. It must be frustrating for the gang at EA Sports, or really anyone anywhere. We might as well have a little fun with it, though, right?

Considering the veritable bucket of modes and ways to play in “NHL 19,” it’s likely that people will have a slew of other changes/modes/etc. they’d love to see if there’s an “NHL 20.” So, feel free to add your own hopes in the comments, and don’t be shy about getting really specific.

* – For what it’s worth, it seems like EA is trying to address issues with tuner updates. Maybe they’ll find a perfect recipe for pokes?

Here are some of the things I’d like to see, or never see again:

Story Mode

The NBA2K series really set the tone, even getting Spike Lee to pen (an admittedly derided) story mode script, although a greed element has soiled the series. EA’s jumped into the fray, with Dan Marino giving your player guidance in a recent story mode.

So, it’s only natural for hockey fans to want their own version, even if you probably won’t ever get to limp over to a digital Herb Brooks and yell “I am a hockey player!”

Now, with a lot of requests for EA tweaking “NHL 20” – assuming, hopefully, that greedy hockey gamers continue to get the opportunity to play NHL games – one must understand that the team making these games doesn’t enjoy the same budget as those churning out yearly FIFA or Madden titles.

The good news is that it’s easy to picture a scenario where a story mode could be grafted on the creaky-but-still-fun Be a Pro Mode. As a team-building nerd, I wouldn’t mind seeing a “roleplaying” element come to the GM simulation that is Franchise Mode, but Be a Pro would be an easier transition. I could easily see them graft a story onto Be a Pro, while maybe pairing down the number of games you actually play in the well-executed third-person gameplay.

However they do it, a story mode would really freshen things up. They could even have a mini-game where you try to rack up experience points by filling your interviews with the maximum number of cliches and bland answers. That’s what we call a sim, folks.

Classic teams

One of the many things the NBA2K series does right is allowing you to play as nostalgia-heavy classic teams, including approximately 5 million iterations of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. (Still smarting over the lack of Charles Barkley Suns, though. Come on, Chuck.)

The NBA is uniquely suited for such a mode, as games are 5-on-5, and star players make an enormous impact on the game. Most teams only go so deep into their benches, so you can capture the vibe of a legendary team even if you only nab 8-10 players.

That’s tougher in sports like hockey, particularly when fans become enamored with bottom-six pluggers.

Here’s the thing, though: it might be worth the effort.

It wouldn’t be surprising if you’ve been engaged in a silly debate: would this year’s contenders be able to hang with the Gretzky Oilers, dynasty Islanders, or unparalleled vintage Habs? Allowing those debates to live out in digital form would be a blast.

Perhaps EA’s NHL team could focus on a small number of these classic teams, as to avoid some of the drudgery that would come with attempting to pump out as many retro squads as NBA2K regularly provides. Such a tweak could also get fans arguing about which versions of dynasty teams were the best, and maybe the ’91 Penguins could be in NHL 20, while the ’92 one could move to NHL 21?

(As someone who loves fantasy drafts in franchise modes, it would be that much more entertaining to put classic players in such situations. And not just because it would be endlessly amusing to create the Quebec Nordiques and force Eric Lindros to finally play for them.)

Graphics

Circling back to the point about limited budgets, I’m not sure how feasible it would be for the NHL games to convert to EA’s vaunted Frostbite engine.

I’d also like to state that, personally, the game playing well is infinitely more important than how the game looks, and the NHL games frequently look nice overall. But yes, there are some moments where individual players look, uh … US Gamer’s Kat Bailey put it well:

But the players themselves are just so ugly. Many of the NHL’s biggest stars are captured accurately, but many more look like weird Neanderthals with bulging foreheads and massive jawlines. NHL has leaned on the same tired character models going on four years now, and as a result it looks quite out of date when compared to basically every other sports game

Again, I sort of “get it” when it comes to the easier-said-than-done elements to improving graphics, but ignoring that beef would be like throwing a sheet over the elephant in the room for many who care more about that sort of thing.

Miscellaneous whining and nitpicks

OK, now let’s get to the granular stuff that still leaves many (OK, me) seething:

  • So, apparently EA’s finally implemented something I’ve been clamoring for: the ability to manually switch the player you’re controlling. The company line seemed to be that icon passing or switching ruined the presentation of games, but I’d often grumble at the title’s inability to easily let me control who I wanted. In especially tightly contested games, that’s the sort of thing that could make you wish you weren’t around other people so you could throw a fit.

You know, theoretically.

After a lucky Google search, apparently this was quietly added:

Huzzah. Now, I could quibble about maybe implementing the control scheme differently – this tweak is stealthy enough that I literally learned about this while constructing this post – but at least it’s, to steal an EA line, in the game.

  • Stay onside, computer teammates. *Glares*

Look, as a simulation, I get that you’d sometimes go offside in a game. That’s especially true when you’re obnoxiously dangling or deking while entering the attacking zone, as I’m wont to do. That’s fine.

Sometimes the AI can get a little ridiculous when it comes to prematurely entering the zone, however, to the point where you’re cursing your teammates like an NFL offensive lineman racking up false start penalties.

It’s to the point where I’d probably accept less aggressive computer teammates if it meant less teeth-gnashing offside infractions.

(There are also times when icing can be pretty ridiculous, but at least it’s reasonably straightforward.)

  • Menus – UI (user interface) has been a sore spot for the EA NHL games at least since they made the jump to the PS4/XBox One, and that remains the case in “NHL 19.” For all the areas of improvement (the slowdown in changing menus seems to be gone, or at least alleviated), there are a ton of other things that make it tedious to navigate the game.

That might sound like a minor quibble, and it’s not the end of the world, but when you consider how dense things get – particularly with Scouting and certain elements of Hockey Ultimate Team – it would be nice if EA pays some mind to the UI for future iterations.

  • Fancy stats, or more stats – This is simple enough. It would be nice if the NHL titles provided more stats, both from simulation and in-game readouts.
  • Partial sims – Back quite a few years ago, you could “intervene” in a game that was being simulated, taking over your team in, say, the third period.

This was a nice way of speeding up seasons if you didn’t want to play all 82 regular-season games, and wasn’t the worst way of adding a different type of difficulty to gameplay. Could you overcome a deficit in a limited amount of time?

I’m not certain which edition of the EA NHL games had this before – I’m guessing it was a feature from the XBox 360/PS3 era – but it was pretty nifty. It’s not as though EA is against the idea, either, as Madden recently featured a sped-up version of games where you’d sim games until there were key moments.

Either way, it was cool, and I’d love to see it again.

  • PC versions – It would be nice to see the NHL games on PCs.

Consider the mods that people could pump out. Granted, EA might not be as thrilled about people essentially warping the NHL games, yet it could allow a passionate community to add value to the titles.

As this PC Gamer article notes, such a possibility is at least being discussed. If so, it would break a decade-long absence for EA’s NHL titles.

***

In case the wave of words over the last two days didn’t make it clear, I’m generally pretty positive abou EA’s NHL series.

Are there issues, sometimes grating ones, with these games? Absolutely. Still, I can’t deny that I play these titles a lot, and get plenty of enjoyment out of them. Hockey has translated to video game forms in a pretty majestic way since the 8-bit era, and it remains that way today.

That doesn’t mean we can’t ask for more. Really, isn’t the half the point of the Internet?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL’s best referee: Wes McCauley goes by his own book

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Wes McCauley keeps his good calls close and his bad calls closer.

Any time the veteran NHL referee is feeling too good or gets down on himself, he breaks out a binder full of his missed calls and looks through it.

”It’s a humbling book,” McCauley said. ”Trust me, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. There’s times you wish you could saw your arm off.”

McCauley’s arms have signaled countless penalties, goals and no-goals since his NHL career began in 2003. Over the past 15 years, he has developed a reputation as not only the most animated referee in the game but the best in hockey based on his consistency, rapport with players and coaches and a demeanor that’s equal parts entertaining and professional.

In an NHLPA poll last spring, almost half of players chose McCauley as the league’s best referee, honoring a man in stripes who’s far more used to getting barked at than complimented.

”I don’t think I’m that good,” McCauley told The Associated Press. ”My job’s just to officiate hockey games and to do the best I can and to move on to the next game and really to stay out of the highlights.”

McCauley has his own highlight reels because he enjoys hamming it up when he makes announcements. When he reaches to his right hip to turn on the microphone, it’s must-see entertainment.

His flair for the dramatic once sent former Rangers coach Alain Vigneault into a laughing fit on the bench, and it has been the subject of mocking from veteran officials for just how demonstrative he can be when whistling a penalty or waving off a goal. McCauley knows he’s more exuberant than he has to be, but that’s part of the fun for him and players.

”He’s real,” Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon said. ”He’s obviously an animated guy and definitely calls a good game.”

McCauley earned the votes of 47.8 percent of players as the NHL’s best referee, well ahead of Kelly Sutherland (17.7 percent), Tim Peel (4.4 percent), Dan O’Halloran (2.7 percent) and Trevor Hanson (2.7 percent). The 46-year-old from Georgetown, Ontario, is the most popular and respected ref because he gets it right more often than not, apologizes when he doesn’t and knows how to explain his calls to players and coaches.

”Consistency. You kind of know what you’re getting with him,” Rangers forward Chris Kreider said. ”In any sport when you talk about refereeing, if a ref isn’t very visible and prevalent and the game is decided by the players ultimately, then that’s a good ref and that’s Wes.”

McCauley gets that. He played four seasons at Michigan State from 1989-93, had a cup of coffee in the minors and figures his relationships with players from that era bought him the benefit of the doubt, and some of that still exists.

”He’s in charge out there, and there’s really not a lot of gray area,” said Capitals coach Todd Reirden, who went to Bowling Green and played against McCauley in college. ”He stands his line and he lets the players play, but he also has a great pulse of what’s going on and I think that’s from his experiences of playing the game at a collegiate level and also some at a pro level. He relates really well with the players and with the coaches.”

McCauley vividly remembers botching a call in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final when he didn’t see that Washington’s Chandler Stephenson, not Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland, tripped teammate Nicklas Backstrom and called a penalty. As with many other calls, he hoped it wouldn’t directly affect the result and apologized to Engelland later.

That’s a common theme during McCauley’s career.

”I still remember one time he made a bad call and he found me the next time we were playing and said: ‘Hey, I just want to let you know I know that call was really bad. I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I wanted to apologize,”’ Winnipeg center Mark Scheifele said. ”When he has the respect level for the game and for us as players, we have respect for him. And I think that’s why he’s known to be the best referee out there.”

Best referee out there? ”Now you jinxed me – now I’m going to be up and down like a toilet seat next season,” McCauley quipped. Maybe earlier in his career that was a danger, though McCauley now has 957 regular-season and 131 playoff games under his and has worked six Stanley Cup Final series.

Over that time, McCauley has developed a balance between knowing players see him as an obstacle to winning while still communicating with them to the point they know him personally. Even if players aren’t happy with his calls, they appreciate McCauley’s honesty and ability to have just as big a mouth as they do.

”You automatically sometimes snap at the refs,” Stars center Tyler Seguin said. ”Sometimes you blame the refs for things that were even out of their control. And he finds a way to take it, give it back a little and then move on pretty quickly and he’s always been very respectful to the players and I think that’s what makes him a great ref.”

McCauley’s life experiences helped make him a great ref. His dad, John McCauley, worked 15 years as an NHL referee before an eye injury took him off the ice and led to a director of officiating job before his unexpected death at age 44. His brother, Blaine, suffered an eye injury that cost him his hockey-playing career and changed Wes’ view forever.

”My biggest thing is when I step on the ice, I want the players to feel like, ‘Oh, OK we’re going to get a fair shake tonight,”’ McCauley said. ”I’ve never really taken it for granted, so I try to go out there and referee every game the best I can.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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Reinhart, Sabres end stalemate with two-year bridge deal

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The Sam Reinhart Stalemate is finally over.

The 22-year-old signed on the dotted line on Wednesday, inking a new two-year bridge deal with an annual average value of $3.65 million.

The deal is good value for the Buffalo Sabres, who are right up against the 2018-19 salary cap of $79.5 million. CapFriendly shows the Sabres with just over $2.8 million in cap space left but with the potential to have to pay out nearly $4 million in bonuses this season.

Like Josh Morrissey and Darnell Nurse before him, the deal means Reinhart will be a restricted free agent come the summer of 2020 and the Sabres will then have the option to hand him an eight-year deal.

And like Morrissey and Nurse, the deal is team-friendly in terms of the cap now and leaves the player betting on themselves for a significant pay raise in two year’s time.

Reinhart had a slow start to the season last year but ended up setting a career-high in goals with 25 to tie Jack Eichel for the team lead.

What’s most impressive about Reinhart’s year was how good he was down the stretch. In the final 44 games, he had 39 of his career-high 50 points and 20 of his 25 goals came in 2018, which tied him for 12th in the NHL during that span.

Important to re-hash this from The Athletic’s John Vogl, who wrote about this subject in June:

Reinhart’s passing skills and hockey IQ make him an intriguing center candidate. Though not the fleetest of foot, he can drive the offense. According to the numbers at NaturalStatTrick.com, Reinhart trailed only Evander Kane and Jason Pominville in shots generated relative to his teammates and ranked fifth in fewest shots allowed. O’Reilly was noticeably better with Reinhart than without him.

As we wrote during Buffalo Sabres Day at PHT, Reinhart could find himself in a pretty juicy scenario playing on a line with Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner. Given Reinhart’s ability to make those around him better, his career-highs could climb to new heights this coming season.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Amid banter, NHL officials get refresher course at camp

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Lunch is over and before the next session of game film study begins, the jokes start flying among the 80-plus referees and linesmen assembled in a downtown hotel ballroom.

”Anyone who didn’t bring their glasses should move closer to the screen so they can see,” someone says.

”Or those who need glasses,” someone else adds, amid the laughter.

If NHL players need training camp to prepare for the start of the season, officials are no different. The men in black and white stripes gave The Associated Press access to their annual camp held in Buffalo, New York, last week and it was full of colorful honesty. They also squeezed in plenty of work during the five-day camp that marks the only time all of them get an opportunity to gather before being separated to roam the continent for much of the next 10 months.

”It’s like players say what they miss the most about when they played: It’s the locker room. It’s the same for us,” veteran linesman Tony Sericolo said, referring to the playful banter. ”This is our second family. We give each other shots all the time.”

Camp days usually begin with a workout at 6:30 a.m. and are split up evenly with on- and off-ice sessions. There is an annual banquet honoring those who achieved career milestones and those who retired last year. They also have a poker night, with proceeds going toward the education of the children of late official Stephane Provost, who died in a motorcycle accident in 2005.

On the ice, the officials get their skating legs under them by playing hockey in a six-team tournament.

”We get to refresh the rules, and it gets us back in the flow,” Sericolo said. ”You start thinking hockey again because for a couple of months, we’re home, we’re relaxing.”

Off the ice, they spend hours studying film to review penalty standards, and share pointers on what approach might work best in various situations. With no major rule changes introduced this offseason, NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom placed the focus on reviewing existing rules.

”We want to make sure we continue the standard we had in previous years,” Walkom said. ”And then there’s the new tactic that crept into the game, slashing, and continue our vigilance there to allow the skill players to play.”

Another point of emphasis was faceoffs, after linesmen spent much of last season cracking down on players attempting to gain an advantage by creeping in from the hash mark or dropping to their knees for leverage.

Numerous videos featured miked-up linesmen being assertive by warning players to make sure their feet and sticks were set while lining up inside the circle.

Another series of videos showed examples of how referees were clear and concise in explaining calls, and the reasons behind them, with coaches at the bench. In one video, Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau went from being unhappy with a call to eventually agreeing with it after having it explained to him by an official.

Sericolo said watching how his colleagues handle situations were the best lessons.

”When you watch two or three guys that really do it right, you pick up little things from each of them,” he said. ”It really helps your craft.”

Sericolo is from Albany, New York, and got into officiating after playing hockey in college. He has now worked nearly 1,300 games since making his NHL debut in October 1998.

”When you’re playing, you never say to yourself, ‘Oh, I really can’t wait to referee.’ We all wanted to play,” he said. ”You weren’t good enough to play, but you always wanted to stay involved in the game. And this was a great way to stay involved.”

The most difficult part of camp might actually be playing hockey.

”It is tougher, because the hockey’s not as good,” Sericolo said, with a laugh. ”And we don’t know where we’re going.”

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