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Looking Ahead to NHL16

I have a secret. Okay, it isn’t really a secret to those who know me, but you may not – I love hockey. Despite being from southern California and not realizing that hockey was the best sport in the world until relatively late in life, I adore the sport. As a result, I also religiously purchase each year’s edition of NHL from EA Sports. This year’s edition – NHL15 – had some issues.

I was really quite excited to play an NHL game on a next-gen console. With greater power comes greater fidelity in the graphics and more opportunities to expand on the already robust feature set from the previous year’s installment, right? Wrong.┬áNHL15 was a bit of a flaming car wreck when it came out. The list of features missing at launch was nothing short of astounding, and a fair few of them are still missing from the game. However, rather than focus on the past, I figured I’d start thinking about the future and what I really miss from my experience with an NHL title.

First off, it has to be said that most of my time spent in any NHL title is in Be A GM mode, followed by Be A Pro. I don’t play online terribly much and have no interest in the trading card game mode (HUT) that EA implemented awhile back to bolster their title with microtransactions. That out of the way, here we go:

MINOR LEAGUE PLAY

This goes towards both BaGM and BaP play – it is absolutely vital that the option to play AHL games (as a GM) and CHL games (as a Pro) be implemented. Really this is one of the largest gaping holes in the title. In the past, if my NHL franchise was eliminated from the playoffs or just didn’t make the cut to begin with, I could at least send down some of my younger guys to the farm team and attempt to dominate the AHL Calder Cup series in an effort to help them progress (and as a nice consolation prize).

As a Pro, being able to play down in the CHL with other players of similar skillsets was vital for development. Recently I attempted a Be a Pro Goalie playthrough and resigned in disgust after just three starts – my goalie was a 70 overall, facing off against the best players in the world. Had I been able to be a 70 in the CHL, I likely wouldn’t have gotten stomped to hell and back.

MEMORIAL CUP SEQUENCE

Last year’s NHL included the option to start off your Be a Pro by playing in the Memorial Cup in the CHL with a team of your choosing. This gave you an opportunity to showcase your talents and try to improve your draft position, as well as earn some XP to level up skills before getting to the real deal. Now, this option is completely absent. Instead of playing your way to a high draft position, being drafted in Be A Pro is literally just a matter of hitting a button and watching which randomized team you get assigned to.

PRESEASON GAMES

The preseason is largely meaningless in nearly every (if not every) major sports league – except for the GMs. Preseason is a great opportunity to experiment with line combinations, players, and can serve as a half decent litmus test on the true skills and abilities of the players on your franchise. Preseason was playable in NHL14 – and doesn’t even exist in NHL15. Please, for the love of god, bring preseason back. I’m tired of having to treat the first few weeks of playing the regular season as an experiment, and having the standings of my team suffer for it.

CONTRACT EXTENSIONS

I know there are rules as to when contract extensions can be made with players, but that doesn’t mean they should be totally absent from the game altogether. I want to be able to offer extensions to promising young players before the RFA signing window opens after the Stanley Cup Finals concludes, as it can be jarring trying to track who all is going to need to be resigned in a one week window. It would also be a step closer to making the Be a GM mode mirror reality.

PERMANENT POSITION LOCKING

Sometimes I just want someone playing up on the top line that doesn’t necessarily belong there according to the game. For instance, in my current Be A GM run with the Anaheim Ducks, I have both Cogliano (an 85 overall LW) and Fleischmann (an 84 overall LW) available to play on the top line with Getzlaf and Perry – but neither one of them really fits the style of play I want out of that top line. Getzlaf and Perry are hard charging, heavy hitting, highly skilled cycling players – and Cogliano/Fleischmann are not. Instead, I’d like to see Beleskey up on the top line – or lacking that, Maroon. Unfortunately, Beleskey is just an 82 overall, meaning if the computer has its way he’ll always be stuck down on the third line. Maroon is an 80 overall, and still labeled a Right Wing in the game, even though he is a left-handed shot and always playing on the left.

I don’t fault EA for not knowing these things, but I do fault them for not giving me the ability to set position and line preferences for players. There are other instances of this – on past teams I’ve been overloaded with quality centers and the game isn’t savvy enough to allow me to convert one of them to the wings to better balance my team.

A NEW, BETTER UI

The UI that debuted in NHL15 is just abysmal. Consisting of a Windows tile-like setup, it does a great job at taking up tons of real estate without offering much in the way of relevant statistics. To see who is leading the points or goals race in the NHL, I have to go down to stats, then choose player stats, then switch from my team to the whole league view – a process which can take anywhere from 8 to 20 (seriously) controller inputs. Last year, there was a window that just had the information available that you could pull up with a simple swipe or two of the right stick from the home screen.

BETTER IN-GAME STATS

The NHL franchise has come a long way when it comes to presentation. It now features video intros from Doc Emrick, NBC Sports detailing out the wazoo – and no indication of season-long stats inside a game. In the past, when a player scored a goal a little ticker would pop up stating the player’s name and how many goals he had tallied so far that season. It was another handy indicator of whether someone had been slumping or overachieving in the course of the season, without having to navigate a thousand different windows.

I’d like to see this returned and expanded upon. If you highlight a player for hitting hard over the course of the game, perhaps also tell me (somehow – doesn’t have to be voiceover) how many hits he has on the season and where he ranks in the NHL in hitting. The same for faceoff wins, goals, assists, time on ice, and plus/minus.

CONDITIONAL PICKS

In the real NHL, conditional picks are extremely commonplace – but they’ve never existed in the NHL video game series. A conditional pick refers to the draft pick sent to a team in return for a player. If that player does well on the other team – well being defined at the time of the trade, and usually relating to number of NHL games played or how far the team gets in the playoffs – the pick changes. As an example, if I traded Beleskey to a team in return for a conditional third round pick, and the terms of the trade stated that if Beleskey played at least 50 games for that other team over the course of the next season it would increase to a second round pick, and he went on to play 50+ – that third rounder becomes a second rounder.

Now, I understand that this may present a problem in the video game series. Figuring out a UI to accurately reflect these terms and conditions would be challenging, as would estimating the value of the trade, but it would still be nice to have some rudimentary system in play.

PERFORMANCE BONUSES

Another commonplace facet of the real NHL missing from the virtual: performance bonuses. Often reserved for players that are on their way out of the NHL – those getting up in years – performance bonuses mean that you could potentially only have a cap hit of 1 million dollars for a player (that is, guarantee the player 1 million dollars in salary), but add incentives. If the team reaches the playoffs, a million dollar bonus. If the team reaches the Stanley Cup Finals, 2 million. If the player scores 30 or more goals, an extra million – so on and so forth. It would be a great way to keep older players on your team without sacrificing the younger generations.

LINE CHEMISTRY

This kind of relates to the position-locking and line-preference request, but is different enough I’ll give it its own section. In short, line chemistry refers to how well players play with one another on a given line. In the example I used previously, Beleskey and Maroon have much better chemistry due to their similar playing styles with Getzlaf and Perry than Cogliano and Fleishmann do. Chemistry systems have existed in the past and I think it is time to bring them back.

Playing style, age, nationality, even the handedness of players (left or right and the overall number of each type on a line) should all play into line chemistry, as should the number of games played together. Getzlaf and Perry are semi-jokingly referred to as ‘The Twins’ of the Ducks, not due to any familial relation, but instead due to the fact that they have been playing together since their AHL days 10 years ago. Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz of the Penguins are a similar story – Kunitz is not nearly as good of a player as Crosby, but when paired together the two work wonders due to their long history of playing together. Chemistry should be able to affect a player’s overall statistics and in-game performance.

CONCLUSION

There are a lot more features and ideas I’d love to see implemented, but these are really the big ones I think NHL16 absolutely should attempt to incorporate. Some of them are more pie in the sky than others, but even rudimentary steps towards a solution would be better than a complete absence in the future.

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