How Anaheim Ducks center Trevor Zegras' play might force EA Sports' hand

ByGreg Wyshynski via ESPN logo
Friday, February 11, 2022
ESPN

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, consider Trevor Zegras quite flattered.

Ever since the Anaheim Ducks rookie sent a pass over the Buffalo Sabres' net to teammate Sonny Milano for a goal on Dec. 7 -- on a move heretofore known as "The Zegras" -- he's been inundated with messages, links and clips of other players in all levels of hockey attempting the move.

"I obviously get tagged by a bunch of kids that were trying it," the 20-year-old told ESPN. "I honestly think that's the best thing that came out of that goal -- seeing everybody have so much fun with it."

They're trying The Zegras in virtual hockey, too. There's a long tradition in EA Sports' NHL series in which gamers attempt to recreate famous goals within the game, even if there isn't a traditional button combination to execute the move, likeAlex Ovechkin's sliding goal and "The Michigan" lacrosse-style goal.

Now, those playing NHL 22 are attempting to send passes over the net to teammates and posting janky, rough, squint-hard-enough-and-you'll-see-it versions of Zegras' play.

Sean Ramjagsingh of EA Sports, the producer of their NHL series, said they haven't officially incorporated The Zegras in the game yet, but that discussions are already underway about putting the move in the next edition of the series.

"As soon as a move like that lights up the internet, there are people that come right to our game and try to replicate it. Try to get the first video out there. It's incredible to watch," he said. "There are people out there who have figured out ways to use some of the mechanics we have in the game to pull off The Zegras. It's just extremely difficult."

It's a move that has inspired TikTok and YouTube videos, like "How to Zegras Goal in NHL 22":

"They're tricking the game to make it happen. You can flip the puck up and do a little jump over when you have control of the puck. So you can flip it up from behind the net and elevate it over the net," said Ramjagsingh.

He said that in one-player mode, players in front of the goal will naturally try to knock the puck out of the air due to the programming. You're the Zegras. They're the Milano.

"And in online play, when every single player can be controlled, it's easy to set up behind the net, try to execute that move, have your partner go up and try to coordinate," said Ramjagsingh.

Is it difficult? Absolutely, which is the point.

"Philosophically, the way we approach the game-play mechanics is to try to give people as many tools as possible instead of just 'press this button to pull off this move.' By taking that philosophical approach, you get people pulling off these creative moves that we didn't plan for when we put these mechanics in there," he said.

Whether they'll officially incorporate The Zegras depends on whether EA Sports believes it's a realistic play to add to a video game -- or just a hockey anomaly.

Keso Paghuni is a tester in EA Sports' "Game Changer" program as well as an avid fan of the series.

He was one of the gamers who helped test the last trick shot the developers put in the game within the past two years: The Michigan lacrosse-style goal, where a player lifts the puck with his stick, keeps it under the crossbar and tucks it behind the goalie. It was named in honor of Mike Legg, the player who scored a lacrosse-style goal in the 1996 NCAA tournament for the University of Michigan. (It's a goal that goes by many names. In Sweden, it's "The Zorro.")

"I love it. Because it was always something I wanted to do in the game but there wasn't a way to do it," said Paghuni.

Andy Agostini, producer at EA Sports, remembers putting The Michigan into the game, and the debates that surrounded it.

"When we initially said we were going to put it in, I was like, 'OK, but what's the gameplay like? How easy is it going to be? Or how hard is it going to be?'" he said. "The team really made sure that it wasn't going to be what we call an 'always goal.' And it shouldn't be. An NHLer standing behind the net with his arms extended? He's in a very risky spot."

They ended up incorporating The Michigan but made it a move for advanced players like Paghuni.

"I think only me and a few others can pull it off online. It's something you never see," he said. "If they put that Zegras pass in there, it should be just as much work."

If they put The Zegras in the game, it will be because it passed the same thresholds The Michigan did in determining it was a "hockey play" worthy of being added to gameplay.

The first threshold was regularity. Was it a play NHL players were attempting during games?

For a long time, it wasn't. That was until October, 2019, when Andrei Svechnikov of the Carolina Hurricanes became the first NHL player to score on The Michigan during a game, beating Calgary Flames goalie David Rittich. He did it a second time in a December game against the Winnipeg Jets.

Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators scored one in January 2020 against the Edmonton Oilers. Among the other NHL players who have attempted it: Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers and Evgeny Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals.

EA Sports had seen enough.

"If we had put that into our game five years ago, we probably would have heard from our players that it was 'arcadey' and not realistic," said Ramjagsingh. "But now with the skill of these kids, they're trying all these skills in real game situations. We're less hesitant now because it's part of the sport. Players see it as a legit way of scoring a goal. It's become a feasible move in the world of hockey."

Others are trying to legitimize The Zegras. Detroit Red Wings prospect Cross Hanas, a forward for Portland of the Western Hockey League, pulled it off a few weeks after Zegras did. Team USA's Matthew Knies tried one in their Winter Olympics preliminary round game against China, to no avail.

Ramjagsingh said the commonality of The Zegras will help determine if it's included in the game.

"We'll have to see how players continue to try it," he said.

Then there are the gamers themselves. If they keep trying to find ways to pull off the move on digital ice, Ramjagsingh said it could move the needle for EA Sports.

"It'll be interesting to see how many of our players are trying it. If they're trying to pull it off, it's something we can look at as well," he said. "It's a little bit of both: Real world and what's happening in the game, too."

Paghuni, for one, believes The Zegras deserves to be added to the NHL series.

"If it happens on the ice, it should be in the game," said Paghuni.

"The only exception is [Boston Bruins winger] Brad Marchand licking somebody's face. That probably shouldn't be in the game."

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