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‘Such a pro’: At 39, Roberto Luongo still chasing the Cup

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CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) — Roberto Luongo has an arena named after him. He has made roughly $100 million in career earnings, knows he is headed to the Hockey Hall of Fame one day, ranks among the sport’s all-time leaders in virtually every goaltending category. And in a true testament to Luongo’s popularity, the Twitter account of his alter ego even has close to a million followers.

His legacy was secure long ago.

He doesn’t need to play anymore.

Yet here he is, regularly arriving at the Florida Panthers’ training facility even before coach Bob Boughner on most mornings, spending more time getting ready for his daily workout than most people do on their actual workouts, not partaking in any hobbies during the season because he wants nothing to take away from his focus, still seeking any tiny way to make himself just a little better in net. His save percentage, in a season when he turned 39, was higher than the one when he turned 29. Or the one when he turned 19, for that matter.

Luongo is still driven, primarily for one reason – he’s never hoisted the Stanley Cup, the grail he wants most.

”He just prepares better than anybody I’ve ever seen at that position and that age,” Boughner said. ”He’s just such a pro.”

The Panthers will gather Thursday for their preseason media day and some off-ice matters, then open training camp on Friday. They were one of the hottest teams in the NHL in the second half of last season, and wound up missing the playoffs by a point in another woebegone chapter for the franchise that hasn’t qualified for the postseason in 15 of the last 17 years and hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996.

Hope springs eternal, Luongo believes, and once again he’s arriving for the start of the season expecting to win the final game.

”Guys are maturing and understanding the game more and more every year,” Luongo said. ”Hopefully we’re ready, right off the bat.”

This season presents a dichotomy of sorts: Florida is a team that thinks its talented young core – Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Vincent Trocheck, Mike Matheson and Jonathan Huberdeau are all 25 or less – is just getting started. Luongo is a goalie who is nearing the proverbial finish. Yet even with James Reimer on the roster, and Reimer will play plenty, Luongo is the goalie they will rely upon from the outset on opening night.

”I just love the game,” Luongo said. ”I feel that I enjoy it more now than when I was a little bit younger. I’m more mature, understand things a little bit better, more focused on enjoying my time and not so much focused on other things that maybe aren’t under my control, which I used to do earlier on in my career that I kind of regret now.”

He didn’t use the word Vancouver, because it was obvious. After his first stint in Florida ended in 2006 Luongo spent eight years with the Canucks, lost a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final with them – in Vancouver, no less – and eventually wound up getting traded back to the Panthers. He was miserable toward the end of his time in Vancouver, lost his starting job and the $64 million, 12-year contract he signed in 2009 was an easy target for critics.

In Florida, he’s happy.

”It took some bad things to happen for me to learn, but usually that’s how things work,” Luongo said. ”You get back up, you learn from it and you get stronger. Feels like a really long time ago, but those were also some of the best years of my career. Everything happens for a reason. You learn and you move on.”

Luongo comes into this season with 471 wins, fourth-most in history, 13 away from matching No. 3 Ed Belfour. He has 27,326 saves – 1,602 away from matching Martin Brodeur for the most in NHL history. Back home in Canada, he has an arena where he used to play that now bears his name, just like Brodeur does. He’s also quick to point out that he’s among the NHL career loss leaders, with 376, 21 shy of tying Brodeur for the league record.

”Take that, Marty,” Luongo shouted.

That’s the self-deprecating humor that he’s needed to develop, and is often in full display on his Twitter account Strombone.

On there, he has asked the Stanley Cup who it was. He has called himself a dinosaur. When the Chicago Cubs won the World Series and gave a ring to Steve Bartman – who achieved infamy in the 2003 playoffs by snaring a foul ball against the Florida Marlins – Luongo pointed out that he even trails Bartman in that category now.

”I just want to keep it light,” Luongo said. ”Kind of a way for me to be myself.”

Light off the ice, all business on the ice.

He was healthy this offseason, a change from the last couple years, and that allowed him to spend much more time honing and much less time rehabbing. He took about a week or two off after last season, forced himself to watch some of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and believes he’s ready for the grind that awaits.

The Cup is out there. And he’s running out of time to get his fingerprints on the chalice.

”Lu’s done everything but win the Cup,” Boughner said. ”He knows this is a big year for this team. And Lu, when he’s at the top of his game, he’s still a top-10 goalie in this league.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE PHT PANTHERS COVERAGE:
Three questions facing the Panthers
Under Pressure: Mike Hoffman

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.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Morning Skate: Senators blame Karlsson; Seguin’s Super Mario clip

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• First off, up top, Tampa Bay Lightning center Alex Killorn nailed the Ryan Fitzpatrick look.

• The Ottawa Senators are saying they didn’t feel Erik Karlsson wanted to be a part of the rebuild in Canada’s capital. (Ottawa Citizen)

• In the salary cap era, players have to weigh their own contracts against the betterment of the team. (TSN)

• Here’s the oral history of the tweet of the year in the NHL: Tyler Seguin‘s Super Mario video announcing his contract extension in Dallas. (Sportsnet)

• Hockey is more than just a game for the man spearheading the effort to bring the NHL to Seattle. (NHL to Seattle)

• Five teams who didn’t make the playoffs last year that should make it this time around and vice versa. (Featurd)

• Like weird? Here’s the weirdest from the past year in the NHL. (Yard Barker)

• People like to emulate Stanley Cup winners. The Chicago Blackhawks are doing that in regards to the Washington Capitals power-play scheme. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• A facial fracture and surgery to repair the damage on Tuesday will keep Nicolas Deslauriers out the Montreal Canadiens lineup indefinitely. (Montreal Canadiens)

• A low offseason for the Edmonton Oilers has them playing a dangerous game. (Yahoo)

• A guide to watching preseason hockey. (The Hockey News)


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

NHL 19 brings some legitimately big changes

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Sports video games tend to trot out new wrinkles that end up being forgotten in months, let alone years. And when we remember them, it’s sometimes for how they fail; football fans may still shudder at Madden’s dreaded “QB Vision” cones.

When you put yourself in the developer’s shoes, it’s tough not to feel some sympathy, as it can’t be easy to churn out a new game every year.

Fair or not, “NHL 18” received some of the typical “glorified roster update” charges that come with annual updates. Even as an easy mark for the series, I must admit that the title felt a little stale. There was a worry that the series was losing steps faster than Corey Perry.

Delightfully, “NHL 19” is its own beast, and presents a surprisingly large step forward for the series. Perhaps it only makes sense with “World of CHEL” bringing the game outdoors.

Today, PHT will look at some of the biggest changes, and how they mostly work for the better. Tomorrow, we’ll trot out a wishlist of sorts for changes we’d like to see in the probable event that EA will release “NHL 20.”

(With that in mind, absolutely share your own wants and hopes in the comments.)

World of CHEL, the good sort of fresh coat of paint

On one hand, “World of CHEL” feels like a repackaging of the series’ many online game modes. If you want to be sardonic about it, this mode sometimes resembles a memorable Jim Gaffigan bit.

While I’ll admit that I’m still very early on when it comes to this mode, so far, it seems like it mostly works.

Personally, I’ve never been all that into heavy player customization; “World of Warcraft” and other online-heavy modes have rarely been my bag. (Considering how addictive many of those games can become, that’s almost certainly a good thing.)

A lot of people do love decking out their characters with “Office Space”-approved flair, though, and this mode seems to bring previous “Be a Pro” elements to a new level. Credit EA with not ruining “World of CHEL” by adding microtransactions, either. Maybe you can chalk it up to HUT covering those bases, or just the backlash to NBA2K’s decisions and EA’s own heartache with Star Wars titles, but it’s nonetheless appreciated.

Ones of a kind

After introducing a more arcade-style, 3-on-3 mode title “Threes” in last year’s game, “NHL 19” adds “Ones.” It’s hockey’s answer to pro wrestling’s triple-threat match, as three individual players battle for the puck and try to score the most goals against a computer goalie.

Yes, it’s as hectic as that sounds. It’s also a fantastic “palate cleanser” compared to more straightforward modes.

As someone who misses the days of arcade-style games (EA’s own “BIG” label churned out truly fantastic titles like SSX and NBA Street, for instance), I appreciate the efforts with these modes. Actually, such thoughts make me hope that EA goes even further with the zaniness in future editions.

Regardless, it’s a nifty, refreshing new flavor for the NHL series.

Cutting edges

A lot of times sports games will trot out gameplay tweaks with goofy, corporatized titles. “NHL 19” isn’t immune to this when it comes to “Explosive Edge Skating.”

Luckily, skating really is drastically improved in this one.

In earlier additions, players sometimes felt like they pivoted with the grace of tugboats. Mediocre responsiveness exacerbated issues where star players didn’t always stand out enough compared to their peers.

“NHL 19” makes big strides in that area, as it’s far easier to turn on a dime and find space, particularly with the Connor McDavids of the world.

Such improvements are felt in other ways – hitting has improved – but you’re most likely to feel the difference in skating.

Death of the pokecheck?

In recent titles, I’ve “spammed” the pokecheck button on defense, albeit at the right moments. Sometimes it almost felt a little dirty that it was so successful, so often.

“NHL 19” shakes a finger disapprovingly at my old methods, however. Penalties generally seem to have been ramped up in this version, with a borderline overcorrection happening regarding pokechecking leading to tripping penalties.

It’s not clear if EA found the sweet spot with this yet, but after grumbling through some early growing pains, I think it’s probably for the best.

EA Hockey Manager

Sometimes you want to feel the rush of deking around defensemen, landing big hits, and roofing pucks beyond a goalie’s glove. Other times you want to feel like you’d do a better job than Marc Bergevin and Dale Tallon.

In past NHL games, you’d probably get an overly inflated feeling that you’d school Bergevin, aside from maybe in a bench-pressing contest. If you engage with all of the modes in “NHL 19,” you may actually end up feeling some empathy for the league’s most embattled execs.

That’s because the franchise mode feels a lot beefier.

For one thing, scouting feels closer to the spreadsheets-as-games experiences you could get if you nerded out with “Eastside Hockey Manager” or “Franchise Hockey Manager.”

Rather than merely budgeting time in weeks and sending a scout out to different locations like in previous games, “NHL 19” allows you to hire and fire scouts. You can align your pro and amateur scouts in a number of ways, including which details you survey in a given prospect.

(Bonus points for EA adding the player comparison element to prospect profiles, so you can experience the fun of some 18-year-old never becoming the next Zdeno Chara. How life-like!)

You can see how it works in greater detail by watching this video, but in short, it brings this series closer to the deeper scouting elements seen in other sports games.

Refreshingly, you’ll need those pro scouts if you keep “fog of war” on, and that element might be what makes you feel a simulation of a GM’s pain.

In past NHL games, you’d know the rating for every player – even ones on opposing teams – aside from players you were scouting. If fog of war is toggled on in “NHL 19,” you’ll sometimes only get hazy reports, and you’ll need to trust the accuracy of your professional scouts.

It opens the door for fascinating differences of opinion. Maybe you’d also pull the trigger on a trade akin to Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson if you were going off the opinion of a C-grade pro scout?

If this all sounds like way too much for a video game – understandably – note that customize it by turning fog of war and other things off. (Personally, I tend to turn off owner mode, as I’m not really interested in deciding how much money I should spend on bathroom repairs.)

HUT gets some tweaks

One bummer with long-lasting NHL modes is that they don’t carry over. Your franchise mode team can’t continue on, and your Be a Pro must be a scrappy up-and-comer even if your “NHL 18” version made the Hall of Fame.

It might be worst with Hockey Ultimate Team, however, as real-life dollars are frequently spent to improve HUT rosters. (This FIFA story is basically a parent’s nightmare.)

So, on one hand, I’m not sure how I feel about soccer-like “loan players” in HUT. I’m also not sure if changes to player ratings are really just a way to nudge the mode closer to “pay-to-win.”

Either way, seeing fairly noteworthy tweaks to HUT might make it easier for those who’ve paid for previous teams to start from scratch. Maybe.

As far as the wider quality of the mode goes – particularly how feasible it is to be competitive if you make it a point not to spend an extra dime on “NHL 19” – it will probably take months to know for sure if it’s truly better, the same, or worse. Early on, there’s some value to the sheer novelty it represents.

***

Long story short, “NHL 19” presents more than just token changes to EA’s formula for NHL games. These changes should be refreshing for series veterans, while the improved gameplay and other tweaks make for a solid start for anyone new to the titles.

More than anything else, it all feels so much better to play, even if it’s unlikely to convert its loudest critics.

This series has been providing quantity for quite a few years, and you’re getting even more of that with “NHL 19.” Thankfully, this iteration presents a big jump in quality, too.

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.