As the actual regular season approaches, some fans have gotten their New Jersey Devils fix by playing a game as them. The latest edition of EA SPORTS' long running NHL series, NHL 14, was released a few weeks ago. You know, the game with a living Devils legend on the cover. The very same cover that you could have voted for, which turned out to be a success. Yes, Martin Brodeur is the first Devil on the cover of a video game since the release of NHL Hitz 2002, which featured Scott Stevens. But that's not what makes NHL 14 a game to look into. This year's game includes the "NHL '94 Anniversary Mode," which allows players to play the game with a similar presentation and style to NHL '94.
If you're new to the realm of games or don't quite recall, NHL '94 was a landmark title for hockey games. EA SPORTS set the stage with NHLPA 93 with it's vertical isometric view and 2D models. But the programmers took it to the next level with this installment. Players could hit one-timers, check players into the boards, break the glass, play a four-player game, save player records, flip passes, set automatic line changes, and, most of all, control the goalie. The computer-controlled goalie could be easily exploited but a human with an understanding of how to play the position made him difficult to beat. It was the first NHL game from EA that had both the NHL and NHLPA license as well as the first to appear on the PC (MS-DOS) and SEGA CD.
For me personally, this wasn't the NHL game that I fell in love with as the 1993-94 season was when I became a Devils fan. That would be NHL '95, which was a bit faster in game play, allowed players to block shots and drop passes, player creation (did I make myself as a 99 overall defenseman to play alongside Stevens? you bet), and season play complete with transactions and year-end awards. EA SPORTS has long since made massive changes to the NHL franchise both in terms of gameplay (e.g. board battle), features (e.g. owner mode, Be A Player), graphics, and teams (e.g. several European leagues and junior leagues are in this year's game). However, NHL '94 was the massive hit that has stood the test of time for how smooth it plays; complex enough to satisfy a serious fan while still being simple enough to pick up and play. Some people got into hockey or a team in the NHL just because they enjoyed NHL '94. In fact, there are still online leagues and people editing ROM files for current rosters at sites like NHL94.com. As football game fans still revere and play Tecmo Super Bowl, hockey game fans have NHL '94.
Therefore it is only fitting that, twenty years later, EA SPORTS brings some of that NHL '94 flavor back in this new game. The graphics have been altered to reflect what the old game had, such as stars as player icons, numbers and positions to replace names, blue ice, and simpler controls. This feature does include the current teams in NHL '14, which are based off the 2013 season plus recent changes (e.g. free agency, a certain quitter). This brings up a fun little question: how would the current Devils match up with the Devils in NHL '94?
Now, keep in mind that EA SPORTS' title conventions mean that the year is referencing the coming season. So it's not the 1993-94 Devils but the 1992-93 Devils that were in that game. Looking back at the roster and stats of that team at Hockey-Reference contains some interesting tidbits. Fans got to see Scott Niedemayer's rookie season, joining a blueline that included a younger Scott Stevens, Bruce Driver, Slave Fetisov, and Ken Daneyko. The Devils' leaders in points were Stephane Richer, Claude Lemieux, and Alexander Semak (really!). It was the last season where Martin Brodeur wasn't even in New Jersey, much less the starter. Craig Billington and Chris Terreri split time in net. The team was coached by Herb Brooks, who was the coach for only that season as management chose keeping Lemieux over Brooks, who wanted Lemieux to go. Lastly and fun for this kind of thought experiment, Dave Barr was a regular on this team. Yes, the very same one who is now an assistant on the current Devils. Maybe the question I should be asking is whether you prefer Barr with the guys on the ice or Barr telling these guys from the bench? Maybe not.
The game was different back then in real life. The league average save percentage was 88.6%, which would be awful for any goalie to have these days. Team defenses and growth of goaltenders - the butterfly that Patrick Roy influenced so many goalies, especially in Quebec, didn't hit the league just yet - were still catching up to offense. So the '92-'93 Devils did score 308 goals, which sounds impressive at first glance. Especially since we're not sure how the current Devils will score in this coming season. However, it really wasn't back then as thirteen other teams scored more than they did. Plus, the Devils also allowed 299 goals so even though the blueline had names like Stevens, Niedermayer, and Slava Fetisov, the team wasn't particularly stingy. The '92-'93 Devils were in the middle of the pack for the most part. They made the playoffs but got soundly beaten by the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games. About average appears to be the way to describe them.
EA SPORTS' programmers agreed as they rated the team with an overall rating of 68. Back then, that wasn't considered so low. The Devils had talent but only superlative players got high ratings. According to the team lists at NHL94.com, the highest rated Devil was Stevens at 76, Semak was the highest rated forward at 73, and Dave Barr only got a 53. Once could take issue with these ratings like people do now, such as 36-year old Peter Stastny was put ahead of Lemieux. I guess stars get the breaks too. So even though Ron Barr talked up the team - and like a pundit, he says some curiously odd statements such as claiming Chris Terreri as a top goalie when he finished 23rd in save percentage - the team was really just an average squad in the game. I had fun playing with them but it was a challenge against the better teams on noneasy difficulties.
So would the Devils in NHL14 do much better? I would hope so. Goaltending in general is much better. Team defenses apply for all skaters and the Devils have taken well to that concept for nearly two decades now. Players in general are bigger, faster, and stronger. The '92-'93 Devils really only have a chance against the 2013 Devils in an actual game if they were allowed to train and plan like teams of today. Even then, it would be a challenge. The current Devils are better in net just by Cory Schneider's inclusion alone. The current Devils may struggle to score goals in this coming season but they are deeper and more varied up front the '92-'93 Devils. They were a score-by-committee team, albeit with three players who stood out. Even the '14 Devils may be better on defense given the team concepts to defend in the neutral zone and in their own end. Strange as it may seem since the Devils' blueline had three eventual Hall of Famers back then and the current team has both Anton Volchenkov and Bryce Salvador. But that's how far the game has come. Now, if the '92-'93 Devils could prepare like teams do now and we assume some adjustments, then it could be a more even affair.
But what about in a video game? I think the NHL 14 Devils would prevail. While the addition of European and junior leagues has led to rating inflation, these Devils are deeper in terms of ratings and quality than the team from 20 years ago. They don't have an overall difference of 28 between the best and worst forward like the Devils in NHL '94 (Semak - 73, Troy Mallette - 45). The same goes for the defense, though the range in ratings was even larger in NHL '94 (Myles O'Connor was pretty bad, to be fair). No one's below 76 on the base roster in NHL '14 whereas the NHL '94 Devils have regulars with an overall rating below 50. The goalies are both rated well and they are clearly superior. Even with the 41-year old Martin Brodeur, who had an overall save percentage in 2013 that was quite low. The cover athlete was still well ahead of either Terreri's or Billington's percentages back then. Unless EA SPORTS would give some serious era adjustments, I think the NHL '14 Devils would be stronger than the squad in NHL '94 assuming the players controlling them are of equal skill. Sorry, Dave Barr the player, but Dave Barr the coach has the better squad.
That's not necessarily a knock on the 1992-93 Devils; again, so much has changed in twenty years. We should hope the Devils have improved along with the rest of the game, be it in real life or in the NHL series. It would be cool if there was a way to test that out in NHL 14. Perhaps someone is willing to make a roster to try it out, though it would be a real challenge to assign attributes to the NHL '94 players that didn't exist back then. Still, it's fun to think about now since in three days, our thoughts and minds will be focused on actual games that matter.