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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 Buzzer: Red Wings win; Laviolette lost a bet

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Three Stars

1. Mark Stone

The fantastic two-way winger performed at a high level for Ottawa, generating two goals (including the impressive overtime game-winner) and an assist while logging a busy 20:53 time on ice.

On a night where stone generated a +2 rating, the 26-year-old fired four shots on goal, delivered two hits, and blocked two shots. Stone was probably the biggest reason the Senators won a battle of not-as-dour-as-expected teams.

(See his booming OTGWG in the highlights section.)

2. Nathan MacKinnon

Gabriel Landeskog‘s two goals (and five goals in two games) grabs your attention, but MacKinnon actually had the better overall game.

MacKinnon scored one goal, already his eighth of 2017-18, and also generated two assists. They were primary helpers on both of Landeskog’s goals.

It was an all-around effort for the speedster, as MacKinnon finished +2, generated five SOG, and also delivered a hit and a blocked shot. About the only thing you’d ask for is more success on draws.

Philipp Grubauer was crucial to Colorado’s success, too, stopping 42 out of 43 shots.

(For more on MacKinnon’s rise to stardom, click here.)

3. Jeff Skinner

You could point out plenty of other three-point games from Saturday; perhaps you’d highlight Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jakub Voracek, or Patrick Kane instead?

Regardless, Skinner’s starting to heat up for Buffalo, with all six of his points coming during the Sabres’ last four games. Skinner’s hat-trick goal itself was an empty-netter, but his Saturday was still sterling; he scored on all three of his SOG and sported a +4 as Buffalo added to the Kings’ miseries. Jack Eichel was fantastic in his own right, collecting three assists.

This sort of result really has to be heartening for the up-and-down Sabres.

Highlights

When in doubt, go with overtime game-winners. There were a few to choose from on a busy Saturday around the NHL, but let’s go with Stone’s authoritative shot:

And Gustav Nyquist taking advantage of a nice play by Dylan Larkin to earn Detroit’s first win of the season:

In what might have been the real highlight of the night, Peter Laviolette lost a bet, and well, this happened:

Factoids

Not bad, Marc-Andre Fleury.

This is quite the zany group of former Senators:

What was that line? Living well is the best revenge?

Scores

Flyers 5, Devils 2
Avalanche 3, Hurricanes 1
Sabres 5, Kings 1
Jets 5, Coyotes 3
Blues 4, Maple Leafs 1
Senators 4, Canadiens 3 (OT)
Red Wings 4, Panthers 3 (OT)
Blackhawks 4, Blue Jackets 1
Wild 5, Lightning 4 (OT)
Canucks 2, Bruins 1 (OT)
Golden Knights 3, Ducks 1
Predators 3, Oilers 0
Sharks 4, Islanders 1

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.

Blackhawks saw ‘vintage’ Crawford in tonight’s win

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“Vintage Crow.” That’s how Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville described Corey Crawford‘s first win of 2018-19, as he stopped 37 out of 38 shots as Chicago beat Columbus 4-1 on Saturday.

This marks Crawford’s second game back from concussion issues that put his season – if not career – on the line, and he’s been thrown right in the deep end. The veteran goalie has faced at least 30 shots in each of his two appearances, so Chicago hasn’t exactly been able to make it an easy return.

“Yeah, we gotta play better in front of him, no doubt,” Patrick Kane said, according to the Athletic’s Mark Lazerus. “It’s one of those things where we played pretty well the first five games, then all of a sudden he comes back and maybe you’re just expecting him to bail you out — which he has the past two games.”

Perhaps the clearest moment of Crawford bailing his team out came on this save, as Artemi Panarin made things happen very quickly in setting up this scoring chance for Pierre Luc-Dubois:

Following the 4-1 win, Crawford said that he felt like he was reading plays well, and the numbers back that up. The Blue Jackets fired 11 shots on goal on their four power-play opportunities, but Crawford shut the door on all of them.

With this victory, the Blackhawks continued their generally strong start to the season, improving their record to 4-1-2, giving them 10 standings points from seven games.

Before Crawford came back, Chicago was largely winning despite its goaltending, as Cam Ward looked shaky at best through five games. You could state that perhaps Crawford returned at the perfect time, but either way, this is a promising start for the goalie and his team.

It doesn’t guarantee that Crawford won’t suffer health-related setbacks as the season progresses, but so far, so good.

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.

Concussion worries loom as Predators put Rinne on IR

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Pekka Rinne‘s Friday-night start ended in a painful way: not only did the Flames score on his basically empty net, but he suffered an injury thanks to an unlucky collision with Predators teammate Kevin Fiala.

Rinne was removed from Nashville’s eventual 5-3 win against Calgary on the behest of concussion spotters, and now the reigning Vezina-winner has been placed on IR.

At minimum, Rinne will miss three Predators games: tonight’s contest against Connor McDavid and the Oilers, along with a Tuesday home game against the Sharks and a Thursday road date versus the Devils. He’d first be eligible to suit up again on Oct. 27, when the Predators visit the Oilers in Edmonton.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Rinne will actually be ready to return to play.

As usual with NHL teams, it’s unclear how serious Rinne’s issue is, and there’s no guarantee that Rinne suffered a concussion. It’s difficult not to worry about that being the case, as that’s been a growing concern around the league, as we’ve seen with the likes of Corey Crawford and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Rinne’s injury does bring about an interesting situation, as the Predators could choose to roll out promising backup Juuse Saros in more of a No. 1 starter-workhorse role.

Earlier this week, Bob McKenzie discussed the Predators wanting to sign Rinne long-term.

Considering how well Rinne played at times last season, and all the accolades he’s accrued and will likely pile up with this franchise, one can understand the drive to keep him around.

Still, Rinne’s 35 and probably won’t want to take too much of a cut from his current, expiring $7 million cap hit; meanwhile, Saros is just 23 and will carry just a $1.5M cap hit through 2020-21. There’s a scenario where Saros could be the guy, Rinne would move on, and the Predators would set themselves up to be in a decent situation to avoid losing a key skater.

That still-unresolved issue makes even a truncated Saros audition quite fascinating, then.

It’s never good news to lose your starter, particularly a long-time workhorse and reigning Vezina-winner like Rinne. Even so, Saros has shown that he’s quite capable when given opportunities, and it could be valuable to see what they really have here. If Rinne misses more than a week, then the Predators could really feed Saros some reps.

One would assume that the Predators would lean on Saros for most, if not all, of this stretch. If not, we might see called-up goalie Miroslav Svoboda play a bit, too. This would be a big step up for Svoboda, who has been playing for the ECHL’s wonderfully named Atlanta Gladiators, and was a seventh-round pick (208th overall) by Edmonton in 2015.

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.

Avs’ MacKinnon belongs in best in NHL conversation

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As you can see from this Associated Press piece, there are some hot “best in the NHL” debates going around, with people batting around names like Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and Auston Matthews.

Colorado Avalanche speedster Nathan MacKinnon‘s name didn’t come up in that conversation, but quite frankly, he’ll be impossible to ignore if keeps this up.

The 23-year-old has scored at least one point in all eight games, and his numbers are positively eye-popping. MacKinnon generated six points in the past two games alone, leaving him with a ridiculous eight goals and six assists for 14 points. As of this writing, only Auston Matthews (16 points in eight games) has generated more offense so far in 2018-19, while MacKinnon’s running mate Mikko Rantanen also has 14.

[More on Rantanen becoming a “driving force” for Colorado]

Remarkably, MacKinnon isn’t subsisting on a red-hot power play, either, as only two of his 14 points have come from the man advantage. With that in mind, it’s less shocking that MacKinnon’s seven even-strength goals currently lead the NHL.

It’s dangerous to rely too heavily on season stats, particularly when we’re still in October, but zooming out to last season really cements MacKinnon’s rise among the league’s most exhilarating scorers.

When you combine last season with these early showings, MacKinnon generated a whopping 111 points in just 84 games, trailing only Connor McDavid (119 in 87) and Claude Giroux (113 in 90). MacKinnon’s 1.31 points-per-game average is second only to … you guessed it: McDavid, at 1.35.

MacKinnon slips under the radar almost as seamlessly as he flies by defensemen for a few reasons:

  • The Avalanche haven’t been very great lately. MacKinnon’s efforts helped Colorado make the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet before that, the Avs suffered a three-season drought. The Avs have only made the playoffs twice since 2010-11, and they’ve only won one playoff series since 2005-06.

Even so, looking back at the past illuminates how special MacKinnon’s start has been. MacKinnon scored a goal in his first six games, something Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, and many other standout Avs failed to do:

Could he break more club records as he goes?

  • Maybe some of the reluctance to name MacKinnon among the best stems from the speedy center beginning his career as an effective scorer, yet not quite the guy people expected.

Through his first four seasons, MacKinnon only crossed the 60-point barrier once (63 on his way to a Calder Trophy in 2013-14), with his 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons inspiring real concern about his shooting ability. It’s one thing to have bad puckluck for a single season, but through the first four years of his career, MacKinnon shot under 10-percent on three occasions, and his peak was just a flat 10.0 during that rookie campaign.

Well, it’s not clear what precisely changed, yet it’s probably safe to dismiss those concerns already. MacKinnon probably would have hit 40 goals and 100 points if he played every game last season (finishing with 39 goals and 97 points in just 74 games), and he’s off to that red-hot start in 2018-19.

  • There were times when MacKinnon almost felt like comic relief in his apparently long-running Tim Horton’s commercials alongside Sidney Crosby.

Now? He’s still goofy, but in more of an “effective buddy cop movie character” sort of way.

His bond with Crosby and the Canadian coffee chain giant really peaked recently, as the two surprised members of Kenya’s senior men’s hockey team (more about that in this post):

Heartwarming stuff, right?

***

To recap: MacKinnon is a speedy center who’s scoring at a near-McDavidian-rate, and he’s building enough evidence that his quantum leap from 2017-18 could be the rule, rather than the exception.

With a rising winger in Rantanen, not to mention a productive, hard-nosed captain in Gabriel Landeskog, MacKinnon also pilots a top line that deserves consideration as the best trio in the NHL.

Oh yeah, MacKinnon also deserves serious consideration for having the best bargain contract in the NHL. Somehow, the Avalanche will receive five more prime-level years of MacKinnon’s services at the ridiculous rate of $6.3 million per season. That’s barely more than half of what McDavid’s getting — and McDavid is worth more than $12.5M.

So, MacKinnon’s on that rare McDavid plane of being lightning fast, yet still boasting the skill and hockey IQ to take advantage of that world-class speed. Maybe it took him more time to harness that, but this seems to be clear today.

It also seems like he’s kind of a goober, and can provide a salty quote here or there.

While it’s true that MacKinnon isn’t totally dismissed as a great player – he was a finalist, falling right behind Taylor Hall for the 2018 Hart Trophy – the point is that the latest Avalanche superstar is worthy of greater hype.

If nothing else, make sure you watch him play. Chances are, his name will pop up more often in “best in the league” conversations if you do.

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.