‘NHL 21’ Franchise Mode is kind of busted, but gets the job done

'NHL 21' Franchise Mode is kind of busted, but gets the job done
via EA Sports

When it comes to judging “NHL 21” in general and its Franchise Mode in specific, it’s crucial to consider expectations.

Judging by how some react to the mere mention of EA Sports’ NHL games online, we can get this out of the way. If you didn’t like recent EA Sports NHL games, you’re probably not going to like “NHL 21.” (Go ahead and rehash those “glorified roster update” takes now.)

But, for those who find some level of enjoyment out of the games — or haven’t bought one in a while –what about “NHL 21,” and its Franchise Mode to be specific?

Well, it depends.

Will you like Franchise Mode in “NHL 21?” Did you like previous ones?

Look, there are a lot of reasons — some fair, some frustrating — why “NHL 21” didn’t make a giant leap with its updated Franchise Mode. Rolling all of those out would probably be about as tedious as scrolling through the menus of “NHL 21,” which sometimes respond about as quickly as Hal Gill slogging through the third minute of a nightmare shift.

But, the bottom line is that not a whole lot has changed.

Actually, some of the stuff worked better in “NHL 20.” While a patch is likely coming, scouting can be really janky. I, for one, have mostly given up trying to manually scout goalies. Good thing goalies aren’t very important, right? (Laughs nervously.)

When you see holdover modes have new mistakes, it’s clear that something’s creaky. It sort of feels like someone needs to take the code for Franchise Mode in “NHL 21” and blow its dust out, like an old Nintendo cartridge.

Biggest change: a decent trade deadline that needs some work

If you’re looking for a Franchise Mode change to put in bold font for “NHL 21,” it’s the revamped trade deadline.

To be honest, I groaned at first when I saw that they were going with a second-by-second approach. Even if it wasn’t real-time, one could see why that could get boring. Yet, after spending some time with it, it’s an improvement over the whole-lotta-nothing trade deadline of “NHL 20.”

Then again, as quaint as it is to see a Blackberry,* I’m not 100-percent sure that this is even better than the format from way back in “NHL 10.” Kind of adorable:

NHL 21 Franchise Mode review Blackberry NHL 10 Be a GM
via EA Sports by way of Giant Bomb

The trade deadline portion of Franchise Mode in “NHL 21” carries some of the holdover headaches from a game that needs a refresher. Much like how EA Sports revamped scouting in recent years, by encouraging you to “get in the weeds,” that also means you’re burrowing deep into the menus. Unfortunately, those menus are slow and clunky. Basically it highlights the criticized parts of Hal Gill, without all of the shot-blocking and imposing-size goodness.

(What I’m really trying to say is: sorry Hal Gill, but you keep coming up.)

* – Considering the Jim Balsillie – Coyotes mess, it’s shocking to see an actual, branded BlackBerry. What would an NHL-themed knockoff end up being called?

Yet … fun can be had

Like others, I can supply a buffet of gripes about different facets of “NHL 21,” Franchise Mode included.

But I’ll also firmly admit that I’ve poured many hours into these titles, and will do the same with “NHL 21.”

Sure, some of that might be a “comfort food” feeling. By muscle memory alone, I can play these games reasonably well in just about any mental state. No need for a tutorial, which seems to be a huge part of just about every blockbuster video game.

For every gimmicky change, there’s a nice innovation. Maybe updates will smooth this out, but right now, skating feels more dynamic. You can burn a defender if they challenge you at the blueline far more here, and it can feel great when you do.

Also, as you go deeper into Franchise Mode, funny things happen. I’ve seen Alex Ovechkin coaching the opposing team. Jonathan Toews earned multiple Jack Adams deep into an “NHL 20” Franchise Mode run. I’m sorry, but if Coach Ovechkin can’t get you to smile, what can?

Relaxing the price

One thing I can’t help but wonder is: do people get so mad about video games like these because they paid full price? Maybe my most pressing advice, of all, is: don’t pay full price for “NHL 21” (or most video games) unless you simply can’t wait.

Heck, “NHL 94 Rewind” served as maybe the lone example of a pre-order perk that would justify such an investment, and it looks like EA Sports will solve that issue soon, too.

Beyond Nintendo games, most titles go on sale fairly soon after they’re released. Sometimes they drop in price so soon, people get really mad about it.

And, even by those standards, you could play “NHL 21” for cheap, and ultimately take the good and the bad with Franchise Mode and other features.

  • EA Play, formerly EA Access, provides 10-hour “trials” of games. Even with a time sink like Franchise Mode in “NHL 21,” you should be able to get a taste of whether or not it’s worth a purchase. EA Play is the company’s version of a Netflix-style subscription service, so its fee (sometimes $5 per month, sometimes less) sure beats a $60 gamble.
  • Off the bat, you’d get those 10 hours to try such games to see if they’re worth it. Maybe just as importantly, other NHL games have gone in the “vault,” usually close to playoff time.

Once a game is in that “vault,” it’s available with the subscription — not just for 10 hours.

So, if you see “NHL 21” and/or its Franchise Mode as just a rehash, you can just play the previous version for less. Angst reduced! Maybe!

So, “NHL 21” and its Franchise Mode can be good, with caveats

To summarize: no, “NHL 21” doesn’t innovate with its Franchise Mode. Some of the shortcomings are glaring. I wouldn’t recommend spending full price for it … or frankly many video games. (Maybe just the shooters where, if you wait too long, you’ll be humiliated against those wily teenagers rather than more modestly outclassed?)

But, if you don’t pay full price to play Franchise mode in “NHL 21?”  That’s where I can recommend it.

Again, it’s crucial to actually like the game. That’s where that 10 hour trial could come in handy. If you’re gritting your teeth at the wonky A.I. (understandable) or outdated graphics (fair)? Then divest, and sure, vent online.

In the interest of honesty, though, I’ve shrugged off most of my beefs with these games, and ultimately sunk an existentially troubling number of hours into them. I’ve already continued this pattern with Franchise Mode in “NHL 21,” despite a lack of freshness or differences. Maybe you will 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.

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    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

    kris letang
    Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

    Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

    Kris Letang Penguins
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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

    Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

    Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

    “It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

    Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

    Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

    “Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

    The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

    “I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

    Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

    Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

    “On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

    The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

    “It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

    It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

    “(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

    Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

    “It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

    NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

    UP NEXT

    Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

    Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.