via EA Sports

‘NHL 19’ brings some legitimately big changes

13 Comments

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.

Nothing to ‘C’ here: Importance of NHL captains is changing

Getty Images
1 Comment

Ryan Johansen remembers how the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have a captain until one day it clicked and everyone knew it should be Nick Foligno.

”There was just no doubt,” Johansen said. ”It’s just one of those things you don’t want to force. You don’t want to rush. You don’t want to regret. Once someone is a very clear option to being named captain, then it’s usually done.”

For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, equipment managers stitched a ”C” on his jersey and, if all went well, he was the one who’d accept the Stanley Cup and lift it first. It’s still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost one third of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain, a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and certainly not a distinction that management and coaching staffs want to jump into without a lot of thought.

It’s a hot topic right now in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf in early 2016 and are in no hurry to designate one. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each say they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision.

”It’s very important to have a captain, but I also think the way Kyle’s handling it is the right way to do it because it doesn’t really make sense to just throw somebody the captaincy,” Matthews said. ”It should have to be the right person. I think it’s honestly been blown up a lot this summer with our team with, ‘Somebody’s going to get it, who’s going to get it?’ But I think in the end they’re going to make their decision and it’s going to be the right one.”

Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.

”For us last season all coming from different places, different teams, it was a good thing,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Everybody chipped in. I think we had a good group of veterans who played a lot of games. I think all together we kind of took charge of helping try to lead the team. It worked out pretty good for us.”

The Golden Knights lost in the final to the Capitals as Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born and just the third European-born and trained captain to win the Cup. No team has won it without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins.

”That tells you something,” said Minnesota’s Eric Staal, who was captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons. ”Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”

Teams certainly aren’t afraid to make big decisions with their captains. Within the past two weeks, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Ottawa traded captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose, Carolina abandoned its two-captain system and gave the ”C” to Justin Williams and Florida promoted Aleksander Barkov to succeed Derek MacKenzie as captain.

The Islanders (post-Tavares), Rangers (after trading Ryan McDonagh last season), Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Canucks (after Henrik Sedin retired) all have vacancies, and the Red Wings are in a similar spot because captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s career is over because of injury. Consider them the AAA club because without a captain, three players are alternates each game.

”I don’t think that every team needs to have a captain,” Buffalo’s Jack Eichel said. ”It’s good to have somebody that makes the executive decision at the end of the day. But if you have enough good leaders on a team, I think that if they’re all on the same page, it kind of works as just serving as a group of captains.”

Sidney Crosby has won the Cup three times since being named Penguins captain at age 20. Two years ago, the Oilers made Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 273 days old.

Ovechkin was named Washington’s captain in 2010, the season after Crosby won the Cup, but during the playoffs last year, he called Nicklas Backstrom Washington’s leader. When the Cup was paraded down Constitution Avenue in June, Ovechkin and Backstrom and fellow alternate captain Brooks Orpik sat in the final bus with the trophy.

”It feels like we could almost have three ‘Cs’ because they lead in different ways, and all of them together kind of make one big super leader, really,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s rare to find that kind of mixture that you have with those three guys.”

Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said the ”C” could be cut up and a slice given to captain Zdeno Chara and lieutenant Patrice Bergeron. The Kings made a seamless transition from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have thrived with ex-captain Joe Thornton and current captain Joe Pavelski co-existing and developing what Evander Kane called the best leadership structure he has ever played under.

More often than not it’s simple: Jonathan Toews has won the Cup three times as Chicago’s captain and unquestioned leader. But he even doesn’t think naming one captain is essential based on his years of help from players wearing ”As” like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

”I don’t see why you can’t have success with a bunch of guys that are alternates and maybe not having one guy wearing the ‘C,”’ Toews said. ”At the end of the day, each guy brings different elements to the table.”

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

MORE:
Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

PHT Power Rankings: Best salary cap era teams to not win Stanley Cup

Getty
4 Comments

It is the summer and with no games being played at the moment it is awfully difficult to rank the NHL’s 31 teams on a weekly basis. So the PHT Power Rankings will spend the next month taking a look back at some of the best (and worst) developments in the NHL, both past and present. Best trades. Worst trades. Best all-time teams. Any other random things we feel like ranking. This week we look step into the present and look at the best trades that have been made (so far) this summer.

For better or worse the success or failure of teams in the major North American sports is defined almost entirely by what they do in the playoffs. It is not always fair because it puts all of the emphasis on what happens in a small sampling of games where anything from injuries, to bad luck, to one poorly timed bad game can turn things completely upside down.

Sometimes the best team in a given season is not the one that is holding the trophy at the end of the playoffs.

Sometimes there is still a lot to be said for being one of the best teams over an 82-game schedule, no matter what does or does not happen in the playoffs.

This week’s power rankings is about teams that might fall into that group as we look back at the best teams in the salary cap era to not win the Stanley Cup.

1. 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings. This Red Wings team was absolutely insane both in terms of its roster and what it accomplished on the ice during the regular season.

On an individual level Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were just entering the prime of their careers. Nick Lidstrom won his third Norris Trophy. Brendan Shanahan was a 40-goal scorer at the age of 37. Eight different players scored at least 20 goals while Steve Yzerman, at the age of 40, scored 14 in only 61 games. On a team level, they scored 301 goals (one of only three teams to score at least 300 goals in a single season in the salary cap era) and won 58 games, the fourth-most in NHL history. Before you start screaming about shootout wins, only four of those wins came in the shootout, so even if you exclude those four games (dropping the win total to 54 regulation/overtime wins) it still would have been a top-five total in league history in the pre-shootout era.

They were amazing.

The only thing this team did not have: Great goaltending, and that played a pretty significant factor in them going out in in the first round to the No. 8 seeded Edmonton Oilers, who were just beginning a rather stunning and unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final.

2. 2009-10 Washington Capitals. If we really wanted to we could probably throw three or four Capitals teams on this list (like the three teams that won the Presidents’ Trophy), but of all the Capitals teams that did not win the Stanley Cup in the Alex Ovechkin era this team was by far the best. I am not even a Capitals fan and it makes me irrationally angry that they did not win it all. Not only because they were absolutely good enough to win it all, but because of what not winning in this season did to the franchise — and the narrative surrounding Ovechkin’s career — in the coming years.

This Capitals team just flat out steamrolled teams during the regular season, winning 54 games (only losing 15 in regulation) and scoring 313 goals, the most of any team in the cap era. What makes that 313 total so outrageous is that they are one of only three teams to score at least 300 goals in this era (the Red Wings team listed above being one of the others), and one of only four to score more than 290. The other three teams to top the 290 mark did it during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons coming right out of the lockout when goal-scoring briefly skyrocketed.

Their goal total in this season was 45 more than the next closest team (the Vancouver Canucks, who scored 268). That gap between the Capitals and Canucks was the same as the gap between the Canucks in the second spot and the Red Wings … who were 14th in the league in goals. This Capitals team was scoring goals like it was 1985 in an era where everyone else was reverting back to the dead-puck era.

Then they lost in the first-round to the Montreal Canadiens, which began that multiple-season process where too many people (including the Capitals) decided a 54-win team that scored nearly 50 more goals than every other team in the league was doing something wrong and had to change, shifting way too far in the opposite direction and probably setting the franchise back several years.

What makes the first-round exit even more frustrating is that they were the better team, only to lose because Jaroslav Halak just so happened play the three best games of his life in Games 5-6-7 of the series. If Halak was anything other than superhuman in just one of those three games the Capitals easily move on. It was all very stupid.

3. 2008-09 Detroit Red Wings. The 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings were a force. They won the Presidents’ Trophy with the league’s best record, then dominated every team they faced in the playoffs, including a really good Pittsburgh Penguins team in the Stanley Cup Final that, at times, looked like it didn’t even belong on the same ice as the Red Wings (Game 1 and 2 in particular were laughably one-sided in Detroit’s favor).

What did Detroit do the following offseason? They just brought back almost the exact same roster, and then added to it by signing Marian Hossa (one of the best players on the Pittsburgh team that it had beaten in the previous year’s Final) to a one-year contract.

With Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and Hossa the Red Wings had three of the five best two-way forwards in the NHL, the league’s best defense pairing in Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, and a bunch of damn good players throughout the lineup (Johan Franzen, Valterri Filppula, Jiri Hudler, Niklas Kronwall, Tomas Holmstrom) that made the roster incredibly intimidating.

On paper and on the ice this team was stacked, and they had the results to back it all up, finishing with one of the best records in the league (112 points, third best) and obliterating the Western Conference in the playoffs with a 12-3 record. The only team that gave them a fight was Anaheim in the second round.

Their quest for a second consecutive title, however, came up just short in the Stanley Cup Final rematch against the Penguins when they lost Games 6 and 7, with the latter ending with Marc-Andre Fleury‘s buzzer-beating save on Lidstrom.

4. 2005-06/2006-07 Buffalo Sabres. Am I cheating here a little by including both seasons? Maybe. But they are both pretty much carbon copies in how they turned out.

The Sabres were one of the NHL’s most exciting teams coming out of the 2004-05 lockout and had assembled a fast, high-powered offense led by Chris Drury, Danny Briere, Thomas Vanek, Maxim Afinogenov, and Jason Pominville that was a ton of fun to watch. They won 105 regular season games between the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons (second only to the Red Wings during that stretch) and found themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals in both seasons, only to lose both times.

The 2005-06 campaign was probably the most devastating because that series went all the way to a Game 7 — a Game 7 where the Sabres went into the third period with a 2-1 lead before self-destructing over the final 19 minutes, allowing three consecutive goals to a Hurricanes team that would go on to win its first Stanley Cup.

5. 2017-18 Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning have had quite a few excellent teams in the cap era, reaching the Stanley Cup Final once and the Eastern Conference Final three other times.

The best of those teams was probably the one they put on the ice this past season. How good were they?

They finished with 117 total points in the standings thanks to a roster that boasted…

  • Two of the top-offensive players in the league (including the league’s third-leading scorer in Nikita Kucherov) as part of a ridiculously deep offensive team that scored 17 more goals than any other team in the league.
  • The Norris Trophy winner in Victor Hedman.
  • A Vezina Trophy finalist in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Extremely impressive roster and tremendous results.

Unfortunately for the Lightning it was yet another disappointing ending as they let a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final slip away, capped off with a blowout loss in Game 7 at home to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.

It was the third time in four years they were a part of the NHL’s Final Four and allowed a series lead to slip away.

[Related: How the Lightning keep coming up just short]

6. 2013-14 Boston Bruins. The Bruins had an incredible run between 2010 and 2014 where they played in the Stanley Cup Final twice (winning one) and won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best regular season team.

The 2013-14 team was the Presidents’ Trophy winning team, finishing with 54 wins and coming back strong after a heartbreaking Stanley Cup Final loss the previous season.

This particular era of Bruins hockey was highlighted by suffocating defensive play and outstanding goaltending, with this particular team being the most dominant of them all in that area. During this season Bruins allowed just 2.09 goals per game and had two goalies (Tuukka Rask and Chad Johnson) appear in at least 25 games and finish with a save percentage above .925.

While they were shutting teams down defensively, they also averaged more than 3.15 goals per game and were the third highest scoring team in the league complete with six different 50-point forwards (and a seventh, Carl Soderberg, that had 48 points in only 73 games).

Their run came to an end, however, in the second round against their arch rivals in Montreal, blowing a 3-2 series lead when their offense dried up, scoring just one goal (total) in Games 6 and 7.

7. 2010-11/2011-12 Vancouver Canucks. Like the Sabres up above we are combing these two because, well, they were just so similar in each season.

Today we may know the Canucks as a bumbling franchise haphazardly stumbling along in some kind of a rebuild that may or may not have much of a direction.

But there was a time — not that long ago! — that they were one of the elite teams in the league, winning the Presidents’ Trophy in back-to-back years in 2010-11 and 2011-12, with the former going all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final only to lose in Game 7 to the Bruins. They came back the next season and finished with the best record once again, only to then be easily dismissed in the first-round by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

The foundation of these teams were Henrik and Daniel Sedin at the top of the lineup, and an incredible goaltending duo in Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. The Sedins were especially dominant during this stretch with Daniel winning the Art Ross trophy during the 2010-11 season, while they were both among the top-four point producers in the league during the two-year stretch.

Things rapidly fell apart for the Canucks after the 2011-12 season. The Sedins started to slow down, Schneider and Luongo were eventually traded in separate deals, while the team has made the playoffs just twice since then and has not made it out of the first round.

8. 2008-09 San Jose Sharks. Even though the Joe ThorntonPatrick Marleau era never produced a Stanley Cup for the Sharks, it was still an incredible run when they were together prior to Marleau’s exit to Toronto.

The 2008-09 season was the franchise’s high point (at least as far as regular season performance goes) as the Sharks finished with the best record in the league.

Thornton and Marleau were still close to being point-per-game players at the top of the lineup, while the front office strengthened the defense prior to the season by trading for Dan Boyle and signing Rob Blake to add to a blue line that already had Christian Ehrhoff and a young Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

The result was a 117-point regular season, a total that only four teams in the cap era have topped (the 2005-06 Red Wings, and three different Capitals teams).

Their postseason run ended in six games at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks.

9. 2011-12 Pittsburgh Penguins. In between their back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances in 2008 and 2009, and their back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in 2016 and 2017, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a lot of early and disappointing exits in the playoffs. A lot of those teams were unfairly labeled as “underachieving” or having missed an opportunity to win another championship when the reality is a lot of them just simply weren’t good enough beyond their top couple of stars.

Of all the Penguins teams between 2009 and 2016 that didn’t win the Stanley Cup, this is the one you can look at and fairly say “they missed an opportunity” or underachieved.

This team, when healthy, was absolutely loaded and should have gone further in the playoffs.

By the end of the season Sidney Crosby was back healthy after his concussion/neck issues and was at the height of his power as an offensive player, and along with Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal gave the team an unmatched trio of centers down the middle. When all three were in the lineup they were all but unstoppable. On top of that they had a 40-goal scorer in James Neal on the wing, a lethal power play, and plenty of depth at forward. They closed out the regular season on an 18-4-2 run and looked to be the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

Their biggest flaw: A collectively short fuse that saw them fly off the handle and melt down when someone punched them in the face. This was on display in their first-round series loss to the Philadelphia Flyers (a total gong show of a series), as well as the bad version of Marc-Andre Fleury in the playoffs when he played what was perhaps the worst playoff series of his life.

10. 2005-06 Ottawa Senators. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s the Ottawa Senators had a lot of really good teams that were loaded with talent. Even though the 2006-07 team ended up being the only one of them to reach the Stanley Cup Final, the 2005-06 team may have been the best. 

Daniel Aldredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza were all 90-point scorers (with Spezza doing it in only 68 games), Zdeno Chara was leading the defense in his final season with the team before leaving in free agency after the season, and Dominik Hasek played his one season with the team.

Hasek’s situation is the great “what if” here.

Even though he was 41 years old he was still having an outstanding season with a .925 save percentage (among the best in the NHL) before suffering an injury as a member of the Czech Olympic team at the 2006 games in Turin. That injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season, leaving rookie Ray Emery as the Senators’ primary goalie the rest of the way. While Emery played well in the regular season and in the first-round of the playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he struggled in the second round against the one of the aforementioned Sabres teams, resulting in a five-game loss. With a healthy Hasek this may have been a team capable of winning it all.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Tkachuk’s impact on Sens; Hunter returns to London

Rangers / Twitter
5 Comments

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.

• There was an outdoor game in Norway on Saturday. Mats Zuccarello and a bunch of current and former NHLers like Henrik Lundqvist, Zdeno Chara and Peter Forsberg took it outside to benefit Right to Play, the Henrik Lundqvist Foundation and the Zuccarello Foundation.

• Now that he’s signed, it’s time to see how much of an impact a teenage Brady Tkachuk can have on the Ottawa Senators. [Ottawa Citizen]

• The arena saga in Ottawa rolls out after the latest meeting between Eugene Melnyk and the city. [TSN]

• Mark Hunter is heading back to London to be the general manager of the OHL’s Knights. [London Knights]

• The Vegas Golden Knights aren’t feeling the pressure of expectations following an historic inaugural season. [NHL.com]

• On the quality of NHL hockey in 2018. [Yahoo]

• An interesting look at the trade tree of the legendary Wayne Gretzky deal. [Sporting News]

Jack Eichel could be in store for a big, big season with the Buffalo Sabres. [Featurd]

• Hilary Knight is returning to the CWHL’s Les Canadiennes de Montreal. [Habs Eyes on the Prize]

• Which contracts from this summer warrant the most head scratches? [ESPN]

• How much of this season will ride on the the Calgary Flames’ goalies? [Flames Nation]

• What this off-season means for the Carolina Hurricanes. [Canes Edge]

• Canada downed Sweden 6-2 to take its first Hlinka Gretzky Cup. [IIHF]

• Finally, Alexis Lafreniere, the possible No. 1 pick in 2̶0̶1̶9̶ 2020, is ridiculous:

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Three questions facing Boston Bruins

Getty
2 Comments

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future.

Today we look at the Boston Bruins.

If three questions aren’t enough:

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building Off a Breakthrough]

1. Will the aging curve send them into a brick wall?

Here’s a confession: my expectation was that the Bruins would look like an old team, at least at the top, during the 2017-18 season.

Instead, the Bruins went from a good (if frustrating) team under Claude Julien into a frequently scary (in a good way) squad with Bruce Cassidy running the ship. The top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak flat-out abused opponents with their skill and puck possession, to the point that the machine kept humming even when a key piece was on the shelf due to injuries. Zdeno Chara may or may not own a personal Lazarus Pit, as he remained fantastic at 40. Boston ultimately succumbed to Tampa Bay during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet B’s fans could be forgiven for picturing scenarios in which a deeper run was quite plausible.

With that in mind, the bar will likely be set higher in 2018-19.

What if Father Time merely strikes a year later?

Chara is 41. Bergeron’s 33, and some of those years have been tough (remember all of the ailments he dealt with in 2013, and how much concussions threatened the early phases of his career?). David Krejci is 32 and slipping, while David Backes‘ style isn’t necessarily friendly to a 34-year-old. Tuukka Rask is already 31, and Marchand is 30.

Ideally, the Bruins’ veteran bests will age out just in time for their youngsters to take over. Whether it’s 2018-19 or a little later, there’s also the possibility that the Bruins might suffer if that transition ends up being bumpy.

2. Will young players make more strides forward?

Hockey fans (and sports fans in general) have a habit of daydreaming young players to stardom, yet sometimes the siren call of potential can be quite misleading. Such a phenomenon explains why, if you need to send a star player away in a trade, it’s often wise to get a first-rounder (even if its from a good team who will leave you pretty close to round two).

While the Bruins passed up on Mathew Barzal (read more about that in this larger piece about promising forward Jake DeBrusk), Don Sweeney & Co. have gone on to find some pretty fantastic young talent. It’s easier said than done to replenish your reserves when your team is trading away premium picks and/or rarely drafting at the top of the first round, yet the Bruins rank among the best at doing just that.

David Pastrnak is the young stud among the aging stars at top, and sometimes you need to shake your head at the fact that he’s still just 22. Delightfully for the Bruins, 20-year-old defensive blue chip Charlie McAvoy provides Pastrnak with a rival in the “Who’s the best under-25 Bruin?” debate.

Most of the time, when you’re drafting outside of the lottery spots, you’re not going to find superstars that often. The Bruins have also supplemented talent with useful supporting cast members including DeBrusk, Ryan Donato, Brandon Carlo, Danton Heinen, and Anders Bjork.

The Bruins’ impressive fleet of reinforcements present interesting sub-questions. Will they at least be as effective as they were last season? Beyond an obvious choice like McAvoy, could DeBrusk and especially Donato offer a lot more as they continue to gain Cassidy’s trust?

Earlier in this post, there was the fearful scenario where older veterans fade before up-and-comers rise. On the flip side, the Bergerons and Marchands could sustain their all-world work while young players give the Bruins the sort of depth that true contenders relish.

3. Will the Atlantic simply be too tough?

The Washington Capitals provide evidence that NHL franchises don’t always know, for sure, when their best “windows” to win might be. Unfortunately, for most teams, being wrong doesn’t mean winning the Stanley Cup after you took what seemed to be your best shots.

This Bruins team could, conceivably, be as good or better than the 2017-18 edition and still get smoked in the first round.

We already saw the Bruins fall to the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team brimming with prime-age talent that might find another gear (or perhaps make a bold addition like landing Erik Karlsson?) next season. The Maple Leafs pushed the Bruins to a Game 7 without John Tavares; if all of Toronto’s pieces fit together, the Lightning might not even be Boston’s biggest worry.

It would be foolish to totally dismiss the Florida Panthers’ chances of making a big step forward, too, considering their summer improvements, talent at the top end, and their imposing finish to 2017-18.

The NHL’s current playoff system dictates that second round can sometimes present a larger hurdle than overcoming the conference final. A lot can change between early August and the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet right now, the Bruins don’t exactly seem like the favorites in a top-heavy division.

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.