What ‘NHL 19’ is missing: An ‘NHL 20’ wish list

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On Tuesday, PHT broke down the biggest changes EA Sports’ “NHL 19” brings to the table. While we’re still not so sure about the death of poke-checks,* the gist is that those tweaks present a big upgrade over “NHL 18.”

If you’ve spent a moment on the Internet, or really with other humans, you know that there’s an urge for even more. It must be frustrating for the gang at EA Sports, or really anyone anywhere. We might as well have a little fun with it, though, right?

Considering the veritable bucket of modes and ways to play in “NHL 19,” it’s likely that people will have a slew of other changes/modes/etc. they’d love to see if there’s an “NHL 20.” So, feel free to add your own hopes in the comments, and don’t be shy about getting really specific.

* – For what it’s worth, it seems like EA is trying to address issues with tuner updates. Maybe they’ll find a perfect recipe for pokes?

Here are some of the things I’d like to see, or never see again:

Story Mode

The NBA2K series really set the tone, even getting Spike Lee to pen (an admittedly derided) story mode script, although a greed element has soiled the series. EA’s jumped into the fray, with Dan Marino giving your player guidance in a recent story mode.

So, it’s only natural for hockey fans to want their own version, even if you probably won’t ever get to limp over to a digital Herb Brooks and yell “I am a hockey player!”

Now, with a lot of requests for EA tweaking “NHL 20” – assuming, hopefully, that greedy hockey gamers continue to get the opportunity to play NHL games – one must understand that the team making these games doesn’t enjoy the same budget as those churning out yearly FIFA or Madden titles.

The good news is that it’s easy to picture a scenario where a story mode could be grafted on the creaky-but-still-fun Be a Pro Mode. As a team-building nerd, I wouldn’t mind seeing a “roleplaying” element come to the GM simulation that is Franchise Mode, but Be a Pro would be an easier transition. I could easily see them graft a story onto Be a Pro, while maybe pairing down the number of games you actually play in the well-executed third-person gameplay.

However they do it, a story mode would really freshen things up. They could even have a mini-game where you try to rack up experience points by filling your interviews with the maximum number of cliches and bland answers. That’s what we call a sim, folks.

Classic teams

One of the many things the NBA2K series does right is allowing you to play as nostalgia-heavy classic teams, including approximately 5 million iterations of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. (Still smarting over the lack of Charles Barkley Suns, though. Come on, Chuck.)

The NBA is uniquely suited for such a mode, as games are 5-on-5, and star players make an enormous impact on the game. Most teams only go so deep into their benches, so you can capture the vibe of a legendary team even if you only nab 8-10 players.

That’s tougher in sports like hockey, particularly when fans become enamored with bottom-six pluggers.

Here’s the thing, though: it might be worth the effort.

It wouldn’t be surprising if you’ve been engaged in a silly debate: would this year’s contenders be able to hang with the Gretzky Oilers, dynasty Islanders, or unparalleled vintage Habs? Allowing those debates to live out in digital form would be a blast.

Perhaps EA’s NHL team could focus on a small number of these classic teams, as to avoid some of the drudgery that would come with attempting to pump out as many retro squads as NBA2K regularly provides. Such a tweak could also get fans arguing about which versions of dynasty teams were the best, and maybe the ’91 Penguins could be in NHL 20, while the ’92 one could move to NHL 21?

(As someone who loves fantasy drafts in franchise modes, it would be that much more entertaining to put classic players in such situations. And not just because it would be endlessly amusing to create the Quebec Nordiques and force Eric Lindros to finally play for them.)

Graphics

Circling back to the point about limited budgets, I’m not sure how feasible it would be for the NHL games to convert to EA’s vaunted Frostbite engine.

I’d also like to state that, personally, the game playing well is infinitely more important than how the game looks, and the NHL games frequently look nice overall. But yes, there are some moments where individual players look, uh … US Gamer’s Kat Bailey put it well:

But the players themselves are just so ugly. Many of the NHL’s biggest stars are captured accurately, but many more look like weird Neanderthals with bulging foreheads and massive jawlines. NHL has leaned on the same tired character models going on four years now, and as a result it looks quite out of date when compared to basically every other sports game

Again, I sort of “get it” when it comes to the easier-said-than-done elements to improving graphics, but ignoring that beef would be like throwing a sheet over the elephant in the room for many who care more about that sort of thing.

Miscellaneous whining and nitpicks

OK, now let’s get to the granular stuff that still leaves many (OK, me) seething:

  • So, apparently EA’s finally implemented something I’ve been clamoring for: the ability to manually switch the player you’re controlling. The company line seemed to be that icon passing or switching ruined the presentation of games, but I’d often grumble at the title’s inability to easily let me control who I wanted. In especially tightly contested games, that’s the sort of thing that could make you wish you weren’t around other people so you could throw a fit.

You know, theoretically.

After a lucky Google search, apparently this was quietly added:

Huzzah. Now, I could quibble about maybe implementing the control scheme differently – this tweak is stealthy enough that I literally learned about this while constructing this post – but at least it’s, to steal an EA line, in the game.

  • Stay onside, computer teammates. *Glares*

Look, as a simulation, I get that you’d sometimes go offside in a game. That’s especially true when you’re obnoxiously dangling or deking while entering the attacking zone, as I’m wont to do. That’s fine.

Sometimes the AI can get a little ridiculous when it comes to prematurely entering the zone, however, to the point where you’re cursing your teammates like an NFL offensive lineman racking up false start penalties.

It’s to the point where I’d probably accept less aggressive computer teammates if it meant less teeth-gnashing offside infractions.

(There are also times when icing can be pretty ridiculous, but at least it’s reasonably straightforward.)

  • Menus – UI (user interface) has been a sore spot for the EA NHL games at least since they made the jump to the PS4/XBox One, and that remains the case in “NHL 19.” For all the areas of improvement (the slowdown in changing menus seems to be gone, or at least alleviated), there are a ton of other things that make it tedious to navigate the game.

That might sound like a minor quibble, and it’s not the end of the world, but when you consider how dense things get – particularly with Scouting and certain elements of Hockey Ultimate Team – it would be nice if EA pays some mind to the UI for future iterations.

  • Fancy stats, or more stats – This is simple enough. It would be nice if the NHL titles provided more stats, both from simulation and in-game readouts.
  • Partial sims – Back quite a few years ago, you could “intervene” in a game that was being simulated, taking over your team in, say, the third period.

This was a nice way of speeding up seasons if you didn’t want to play all 82 regular-season games, and wasn’t the worst way of adding a different type of difficulty to gameplay. Could you overcome a deficit in a limited amount of time?

I’m not certain which edition of the EA NHL games had this before – I’m guessing it was a feature from the XBox 360/PS3 era – but it was pretty nifty. It’s not as though EA is against the idea, either, as Madden recently featured a sped-up version of games where you’d sim games until there were key moments.

Either way, it was cool, and I’d love to see it again.

  • PC versions – It would be nice to see the NHL games on PCs.

Consider the mods that people could pump out. Granted, EA might not be as thrilled about people essentially warping the NHL games, yet it could allow a passionate community to add value to the titles.

As this PC Gamer article notes, such a possibility is at least being discussed. If so, it would break a decade-long absence for EA’s NHL titles.

***

In case the wave of words over the last two days didn’t make it clear, I’m generally pretty positive abou EA’s NHL series.

Are there issues, sometimes grating ones, with these games? Absolutely. Still, I can’t deny that I play these titles a lot, and get plenty of enjoyment out of them. Hockey has translated to video game forms in a pretty majestic way since the 8-bit era, and it remains that way today.

That doesn’t mean we can’t ask for more. Really, isn’t the half the point of the Internet?

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.

2017: A Fantasy Hockey Odyssey (PHT Year in Review)

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(Pro Hockey Talk is taking a look back at the year in hockey. We’ll be presenting you with the best goals, saves, moments, players and much more as we bring you the best of 2017.)

You’ve likely read this already if you’re perused some best/worst of 2017 lists, but I’m not breaking rank: these 12 months were often a beatdown for humanity.

Luckily, pop culture, sports, and other distractions responded to the carnage like a bat signal, providing us with precious diversions as the universe crumbles. Fantasy hockey falls in line with that, if you ask me, so let’s look back at 2017, combining hearty portions of 2016-17 and 2017-18 for a kind-hearted retrospective.

This guy, That guy, and everyone else

If you want to look at the two most successful hockey players in the world, you’d probably go Sidney Crosby (Stanley Cup, strong regular seasons, international glories) against Connor McDavid (2016-17’s only 100-point season, freak of nature, plausible future glories).

From a fantasy perspective, it’s about two scorers … but only McDavid makes that duo, if you’re being harsh. And also if you’re ignoring playoff pools, which are denizens of randomness, if you ask a fellow who’s only delved into them a bit.

No, in using NHL.com’s refined results settings, two scorers stand alone during this calendar year (OK, Jan. 1 to today): McDavid and Nikita Kucherov. These are the only two scorers who’ve hit 100-plus points during that span, with the closest contenders stuck at 87 points (John Tavares, Patrick Kane, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Scheifele, with the latter player hopefully being OK as 2018 approaches).

Remarkably, you could very sanely argue that Kucherov’s been better, as goals are tougher to come by than assists, and he’s hit his near-identical mark in three fewer contests:

McDavid in most of 2017: 81 GP, 30 goals, 72 assists, 102 points, 242 shots on goal, +29, somehow just a 39.8 faceoff winning percentage, I felt the need to mention.

Kucherov in most of 2017: 78 GP, 51 goals, 50 assists, 101 points, 279 SOG, +21, eight GWG to McDavid’s six.

Again, no one else even hit 90 points during this span. Remarkable. It stands as another reminder that Kucherov’s brilliance needs to be trumpeted, preferably from a high vantage point, Ricola-style.

These two guys are special, but no longer seemingly aliens

If you drafted Brent Burns and/or Erik Karlsson high heading into 2017-18 (bless your soul and sanity if they were among your top three picks), then you’re well aware that the two seemingly-untouchable defensemen have looked decidedly human this season. Granted, Karlsson is still incredible, but the fantasy returns have been more minimal.

Well, the calendar year numbers back that up. Karlsson and Burns are up their among the four highest defensemen, but they’re joined by Victor Hedman and John Klingberg as the guys who’ve hit 60+ points. Burns leads with 65 (and a ridiculous 307 SOG, more than Kucherov and McDavid, by the way), Hedman has 64, while Klingberg and Karlsson are tied at 62.

When in doubt, draft Swedish defensemen and/or dudes who could pass as Chewbacca.

(Note: Karlsson scored his 62 points in 71 games, so … he’s still possibly a Martian.)

Braden Holtby is the new Martin Brodeur

In case you haven’t poked around Hockey Twitter much, or blogs for that matter, Martin Brodeur isn’t the no-brainer superstar some assume. Well, at least when you compare him to, say, Dominik Hasek. In certain communities, that is.

You see, Brodeur frequently hobbled behind the true elites in terms of save percentage, and many believe that his puck-moving skills didn’t make up that difference.

That said, on the fantasy side, Brodeur was often fried gold.

The all-time wins leader obviously won a lot, and for most of his career, you could count on him to play a ton of games. He’d nab a lot of shutouts, to boot. As unpredictable as netminders can be thanks to the teams in front of them and health breaks and arrests go, Brodeur was as steady – and effective – as you could really ask for.

Holtby is becoming that guy: tons of reps, dependable, very good but maybe not getting mentioned as the cream of the crop as often as, say, Carey Price or Sergei Bobrovsky. It makes perfect sense, then, that he’s unmatched when it comes to wins (though his .920 save percentage speaks for itself.)

Now, I was pumping his tires as the next Henrik Lundqvist earlier but … Henrik Lundqvist still seems like Henrik Lundqvist, so let’s go with The Next Brodeur for now.

Reigning rookies

In 2016-17, Auston Matthews led a crop of outstanding Toronto Maple Leafs youngsters while Patrik Laine looked like the heir apparent to Alex Ovechkin. Jake Guentzel really blossomed during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, while Matthew Tkachuk annoyed everyone in his path to fantasy glory.

Shockingly, 2017-18 is producing a comparable crop of rookies, to the point that the volume makes it difficult to name everyone.

Mathew Barzal and Brock Boeser are both (at least temporarily) altering the trajectories of their teams. Yanni Gourde and Jesper Bratt likely deserve a bit more credit for their teams’ startling improvements. Nico Hischier looks like he’ll live up to being a top pick, while Clayton Keller is making teams kick themselves for passing him up, even for a few picks. Defensemen like Will Butcher, Charlie McAvoy, and Mikhail Sergachev are making splashes of their own.

Rookies are tough to figure in fantasy, what with uncertainty about even staying with the big team and no/little prior NHL numbers to use as a reference. Taking chances on them, only to see them explode, makes the successes so much sweeter, then.

***

So, those are some of the trends and stories that stood out to me in fantasy this year. No end-of-year list is complete without people groaning about choices, however, so share your omissions and opinions in the comments, on Twitter, or via email.

Previously:

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.

2019 Winter Classic: Bruins – Blackhawks at Notre Dame Stadium

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It’s official: the Boston Bruins will take on the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2019 Winter Classic.

That edition of the event, which will air on NBC on Jan. 1, 2019, gets a really fun hook: it will take place at Notre Dame Stadium, home of the Fighting Irish. Maybe both teams will wear special gold helmets as an ode to their hosts?

“The Blackhawks and Bruins, two of our most historic franchises, will be meeting outdoors for the first time at the 2019 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Notre Dame Stadium, with its capacity approaching 80,000, will provide an ideal setting for this ground-breaking event and will host the largest live audience ever to witness a game by either of these teams.”

This marks the fourth Winter Classic for the Blackhawks and the third for the Bruins. It’s also Chicago’s sixth outdoor game overall.

Both teams pumped out some fun videos to celebrate the announcement.

In the case of the Blackhawks, they remind us that their players have had a chance to soak in the Notre Dame Stadium atmosphere before.

Maybe this will paint the picture a bit more?

Here’s a bit more information regarding the history of the Winter Classic, via the league’s press release:

The 2019 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic® continues the tradition the League established in 2008 of hosting a regular-season outdoor game at the onset of the new year. This game will be the eleventh NHL Winter Classic, the first time that the Blackhawks have faced off against the Bruins in an outdoor game, and the fourth Original Six matchup (2009, 2014, 2016). Bridgestone, the Official Tire of the NHL® and NHLPA, returns as title sponsor for the tenth consecutive year. Over the past decade, the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic® has become a tentpole hockey event on the North American sporting calendar, and Bridgestone will be maintaining their partnership with the League through 2021.

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.

P.K. Subban: It was a ‘personality trade,’ not a hockey trade

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Now that the gloves have really come off, it’s been wildly entertaining to watch P.K. Subban snipe at the Montreal Canadiens for that trade to the Nashville Predators.

The superstar defenseman notably omitted Canadiens logos from a tribute to Scott Gomez. He landed some barbs on the franchise during a charitable comedy show. He also pumped Nashville’s tires as a place where he’s comfortable, which isn’t aggressive, but still might sting for Habs fans who hate the trade.

He hasn’t been coy about the awkward feelings, yet Thursday presented one of his best statements yet.

Apparently Subban told Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt that the move wasn’t business; it was personal.

“People said it was a hockey trade. I think it’s the furthest from that,” Subban said to Prewitt, by way of TSN’s Frank Seravalli. “I think it was a personality trade.”

Well then.

If that isn’t enough to sour the milk of Montreal fans who hate the move, EA Sports’ NHL 17 season simulation really rubbed salt in their wounds.

Apparently, EA’s video game predicted a situation where Subban and the Nashville Predators would win the Stanley Cup by (gulp) beating the Canadiens … in Montreal.

Harsh.

As a reminder, the Predators face the Canadiens in Nashville on Jan. 3 and in Montreal on March 2.

Yes, that is indeed too long of a wait.

Sadly, Crosby praise still comes at Ovechkin’s expense

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Here’s a homework assignment for you: praise Sidney Crosby‘s incredible work without downgrading Alex Ovechkin.

Yes, it’s not easy.

ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun presented an interesting column that spotlighted an admittedly “tired narrative” while still ultimately pumping up Crosby at Ovechkin’s expense.

LeBrun quoted anonymous executives who, yes, trotted out tired narratives. One executive did the baseball thing in making it Crosby (“five-tool guy”) vs. Ovechkin (“home run hitter”) while another equated it to a full-court player vs. a “half-court” player.

It’s all … well, tiresome.

Ovechkin may not have had the greatest game of his life on Saturday, but watching that game, was the takeaway really that he let Russia down? That the difference between the two teams was, in any way, about Crosby over Ovechkin?

You can throw out all sorts of stats or lean on the eye test to note how over-matched Russia really was in that game. Or you can consider the defensemen Russia dressed in a best-on-best clash:

Dmitry Kulikov, Dmitry Orlov, Nikita Zaitsev, Alexey Marchenko, Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov and Nikita Nesterov.

Yikes.

Search your soul for a second and ask: how uneasy would an NHL team feel about that group of blueliners? Such a collection would struggle against one of the league’s 30 squads, let alone against a virtual All-Star team.

Is Crosby better than Ovechkin? There’s a strong chance that is the case, because of the whole “Crosby probably being the best player of his generation” thing.

How about this for a daring idea, though: why not enjoy the work of both players?

Ovechkin is easily the best sniper of his generation, and with 82 points in 84 career playoff games, sure seems like a strong big-game player. As we all know, hockey is a team sport, yet the blame falls on Ovechkin again and again.

Instead, let’s give Crosby and the rest of his brilliant teammates our attention, as we’ve seen here, here and here.