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‘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.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Hats off (again) to Jaden Schwartz

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  • Jaden Schwartz records his second hat trick of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • Vladimir Tarasenko keeps producing.
  • Jordan Binnington records his first career postseason shutout to help bring the St. Louis Blues one step closer to the Stanley Cup Final.

St. Louis Blues 5, San Jose Sharks 0 (Blues lead series 3-2)

This game was every bit as lopsided as the 5-0 final score would have you believe. The St. Louis Blues were simply the better team in every single phase of the game and put together what might have been their best performance of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs to this point. They now return home on Tuesday night with a chance to clinch their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1970 and have to be confident given how well they have played over the past two games. Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko both had multi-point games in the win (Schwartz recorded his second hat trick of the postseason), while Oskar Sundqvist started things off early in the first period to continue his strong playoff run. The Sharks were not only on the wrong end of the score, but they also now have some major injury questions heading into Game 6, especially regarding top defender Erik Karlsson who played just 10 minutes on Sunday as he continues to deal with his lingering injury. Blues goalie Jordan Binnington recorded his first shutout of the playoffs in net.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues. His incredible postseason continues. After a disappointing regular season performance that saw him score just 11 goals in 69 games, one of the worst offensive outputs of his career, Schwartz has been a constant force in these playoffs and recorded his second hat trick on Sunday. He is now up to 12 goals for the playoffs, exceeding his regular season total, and is now just one goal away from tying Brett Hull’s franchise record for a single postseason.

2. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues. After a fairly quiet (by his standards, anyway) start to the playoffs the Blues needed their best player to shine in the Western Conference Final. He has. He extended his current point streak to five games on Sunday with a goal and two assists. He now has two goals and five assists in the series, and is up to seven goals and 12 total points in the playoffs. He has always been a big-time performer for the Blues in the playoffs, and he is shining just when they need him most.

3. Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues. He did not need to be great on Sunday, especially over the second and third periods when the Blues completely took over the game and dominated, but a shutout in a Western Conference Final game is still a big deal. It his his first career shutout in the playoffs.

Highlights of the Day

Sundqvist got things started for the Blues when he capitalized on a bad turnover by Karlsson. It is his fourth goal of the playoffs.

This was just a terrible play by Sharks goalie Martin Jones and it resulted in an easy goal for Schwartz, his first of the game.

The first postseason penalty shot goal in St. Louis Blues franchise history from Tarasenko on a shot that looked to be pretty unstoppable.

Factoids

  • Schwartz became just the third player in Blues franchise history to score at least 10 goals in a single playoff run and the first since Brett Hull during the 1991 playoffs. [NHL PR]
  • The St. Louis Blues have won more games this postseason than in any other postseason in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Vladimir Tarasenko scored the first postseason penalty shot goal in St. Louis Blues history in the second period of Sunday’s game. [NHL PR]
  • The Blues have won seven of their first nine road games this postseason, something only 17 other teams have accomplished. [NHL PR]
  • Schwartz is the first player in Blues history to have two hat tricks in a single postseason and the first player for any team since Johan Franzen did it for the 2008 Detroit Red Wings. [NHL PR]

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

GM Armstrong’s roster overhaul has Blues on verge of Stanley Cup Final

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After blowing out the San Jose Sharks on Sunday afternoon in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, the St. Louis Blues moved one step closer to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in nearly 50 years. Given where this team was just a few months ago (when it was at the bottom of the Western Conference standings) it is one of the more stunning stories in what has already been a wild and unpredictable postseason.

But don’t be fooled by where this Blues team was in mid-January. They are good, and they absolutely deserve to be in the position they are in.

They were always better than their first half record would have had you believe, and once they solidified the goaltending position with the arrival — and ensuing emergence —  of Jordan Binnington, as well as the improved defensive play after the coaching change from Mike Yeo to Craig Berube, they have played and looked like a Stanley Cup contender.

While it’s easy to point to the hiring of Berube and the call-up of Binnington as the turning points, general manager Doug Armstrong also deserves a ton of credit for the moves he has made over the past two years for getting this team to where it is.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Since the summer of 2017, Armstrong has completely overhauled the forward depth of his roster, adding Ryan O'Reilly, Brayden Schenn, Patrick Maroon, David Perron, Tyler Bozak, and Oskar Sundqvist from outside the organization, while also using one of his two 2017 first-round draft picks on Robert Thomas, who has shown flashes of brilliance during these playoffs as a 19-year-old rookie.

That group of forwards represented four of the Blues’ top-six scorers this season (and four of the top-five among the forwards) and have all made their presence felt in the playoffs at one time or another.

The key for the Blues is not just that they added them, but how they were able to get them many of them.

Let’s start with the trades.

Going back to the summer of 2017, Armstrong made four significant trades that involved all of this.

  • Trading two-first round draft picks (the Blues’ own 2018 first-round pick, as well as a 2017 first-round pick they had previously acquired from the Washington Capitals in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade) and Jori Lehtera to the Philadelphia Flyers for Schenn.
  • Trading Ryan Reaves and a 2017 second-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Sundqvist and a 2017 first-round pick.
  • Trading Paul Stastny‘s expiring contract to the Winnipeg Jets for a package that included a 2018 first-round pick.
  • Trading Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, a 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for O’Reilly.

What have the Blues gained from all of that? Well let’s just take a look at what each player involved has done from the time of their trade through the end of the 2018-19 regular season.

Look at the difference in production. While Armstrong gave up more assets, he got significantly more production back in return and did so for a cheaper price against the salary cap (even if you subtract the Stastny cap hit out of that since he was leaving as a free agent anyway).

He shed a bunch of contracts he probably didn’t want (Lehtera, Sobotka, Berglund) and some draft picks to get top-line players (O’Reilly and Schenn) and a good young forward (Sundqvist) that has emerged as an effective bottom-six player.

Even though he gave up three first-round picks and two second-round picks, he still managed to get two first-round picks back in return. Even if you look at that as a net-loss in terms of assets, the success rate of mid-to-late first-and second-round picks is more than worth it when you look at just how much the Blues were able to get back in their lineup.

Especially if it ends up resulting in a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, and especially since the NHL assets he sent away aren’t really anything special (Stastny being the exception — and even he wasn’t guaranteed to be back had he not been traded).

His free agent acquisitions this summer have also, for the most part, panned out.

Perron returned for his third different stint with the Blues and finished with 23 goals and 46 total points even though he played in only 56 regular season games.

Maroon signed a bargain-basement contract and gave the Blues a solid, two-way, possession-driving forward that also happened to score one of their biggest postseason goals when he scored in double overtime of Game 7 of their Round 2 series against the Dallas Stars.

The addition that has probably given them the least bang for their buck is probably Bozak ($5 million per year for three years), but even he has been a solid secondary producer.

Overall, pretty much every roster move Armstrong has put his fingerprints on over the past two years has worked out about as well as he and the Blues could have hoped. He is a deserving finalist for the NHL’s general manager of the year award, and is a big reason his team is on the verge of what could be a historic season for the franchise.

Related: Blues rout Sharks in Game 5

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sharks blown out by Blues and now have major injury concerns

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Whatever luck the San Jose Sharks had on their side earlier this postseason completely disappeared on Sunday in what was a complete nightmare of a performance against the St. Louis Blues.

Not only did they get thoroughly dominated in a 5-0 loss, but they had a terrible day from an injury standpoint and will be going into Game 6 of the Western Conference Final (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN) facing elimination with a roster that will almost certainly be far less than 100 percent.

The Sharks’ injury list after Sunday’s game is a significant one and includes some of their top players.

Among them…

  • Defender Erik Karlsson, who entered the game obviously playing through a groin injury, was limited to just 10:32 of ice-time and played just three minutes after the first period, including zero in the third period.
  • Tomas Hertl, one of the team’s best forwards and leading scorers this postseason, exited the game after the second period. He was on the receiving end of a hit to the head from Ivan Barbashev in the first period that was uncalled.
  • Joe Pavelski also left the game in the third period following a high hit from Blues defender Alex Pietrangelo along the boards. Keep in mind that he missed the first six games of their Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche with a head injury.
  • As if all of that was not enough, Joonas Donskoi also exited the game in the third period after he was hit in the mouth by a puck and was bleeding.

Even if all (or some) of those players are available for Tuesday’s game it is entirely possible they will not be 100 percent. That is especially true for Karlsson who was already looking to be limited in what he was capable of doing entering Sunday’s game. When he did play in Game 5 he looked tentative, slow, and was guilty of a brutal turnover that resulted in the Blues’ first goal.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That turnover was just the start of what would be a complete meltdown by the Sharks that saw them record 36 penalty minutes (including two misconducts) and give the Blues two 5-on-3 power plays. Add that to the return of the bad version of Martin Jones in net and you had a perfect recipe for a blowout loss on the ice.

As for the Blues, this was just an all-around impressive performance.

The win improved them to 7-2 on the road this postseason and is significant for a number of reasons. For one, it has them in a position where they are now just one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the 1970 season. It was also their 11th win of the playoffs, setting a new franchise record for most wins in a single postseason.

Jaden Schwartz, who scored just 11 goals in 69 games during the regular season, recorded his second hat trick of the playoffs to give him a team-leading 12 postseason goals, while Vladimir Tarasenko extended his current point streak to five games by scoring on a penalty shot in the second period (the first postseason penalty shot goal in Blues franchise history).

The Sharks had a couple of near-misses by ringing a pairing of shots off the goal post next to Blues goalie Jordan Binnington, including one from Evander Kane just 10 seconds into the game, but recorded just 10 shots on goal over the second and third periods, which was a pretty accurate reflection of the shutdown performance by the Blues defensively.

Game 6 of Blues-Sharks is 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday night in St. Louis.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Tarasenko scores first postseason penalty shot goal in Blues history

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The St. Louis Blues put on an absolute clinic in the second period on Sunday afternoon, scoring a pair of goals and outshooting the San Jose Sharks by a 20-6 margin.

The second goal came from star winger Vladimir Tarasenko when he scored on a penalty shot by ripping a laser of a shot behind Sharks goalie Martin Jones, making him look relatively helpless in the process.

You can see the entire sequence in the video above.

It is a noteworthy goal not only because it gave the Blues a 3-0 lead, but also because it is the first time in Blues franchise history that they have scored a goal on a penalty shot in a playoff game.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It is also only the second time the Blues have had a penalty shot in a playoff game, as Tarasenko’s attempt joined Jimmy Roberts during the 1968 playoffs (Roberts did not score).

Tarasenko’s goal was his seventh of the playoffs and his second of the Western Conference Final. He has now recorded at least one point in every game against the Sharks. He was awarded the penalty shot when he was tripped by Sharks defender Brent Burns on a breakaway.

His goal came after Jaden Schwartz scored his 10th goal of the playoffs earlier in the period, capitalizing on a brutal play by Jones that saw him turn the puck over in front of the net to a wide open Schwartz.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.