Monday, February 27, 2012

2011-2012 ITG Heroes and Prospects Review

ITG fills the void in the hockey release schedule with their annual Heroes and Prospects set.  Collectors year in and year out look forward to this release to get their hands on some of the youngest and most promising hockey players.  This unique set showcases all types of hockey talent - from legendary to current, and to future.

Base Card Design -
The Heroes and Prospects base card design comes in a few different variations. There are the standard base cards which feature players in their CHL or AHL teams, Grad cards which show current NHL stars in their pre-NHL jerseys, and Hockey Hero cards which showcase hockey legends. Even with the numerous variations, they all look pretty much the same and give off the same feel - which is good because they all make up the same base set. All the cards have nice close-up photos of the featured player. For the most part, all the players are in bold, full-color photography that helps them jump off the card. The only non-examples of these would be from the legend's cards. But even with those, the ones I received in my box looked well-done with a clear image.

The predominant color of the H&P set is a faded gold. This background color permeates its way through the entire base set. Personally I think it's an odd color choice as it takes away slightly from the colorful player images.  It makes the cards look a little older and a little tarnished - the color just does not evoke anything modern. Here a better color choice would have been a very bright white background with grey overtones. I think that would have made the base cards really pop. But as it stands, the background color choice brings down the set slightly. The rest of the design works well.  ITG did a nice job incorporating the different team colors into the graphics. It's also fun to see the AHL and CHL logos featured on the cards. Many of these logos have a fun spirit to them that NHL logos sometimes can lack.

The back of the H&P cards are pretty standard fare. ITG does a very nice job of including a lot of information about the featured player. The information is laid out in a clean manner that is not confusing, and the space on the back is used well - nothing fancy, but a very functional card back. People who are stat completists may not appreciate only one line of statistics, but for most people like myself it's just fine.

The last base cards in the set have been used to pay tribute to players who have past away recently. This Tribute subset is something pretty unique to hockey cards... and is something that could be pretty touchy... but ITG handled it well. The cards are clean and very well done. The front cards are very stark and simple with only black and white tones. It's not morbid or morose. They in fact are classy cards. The back of the card has a write up of the player and some of the positive aspects of their game. Nice job on these ITG! And you can find some that feature sticker autographs of the player.

Base Card Design Score:

Inserts/Game-Used/Autos -
On average a box of H&P will net you 4 memorabilia cards - usually 2 autographs and 2 game-used pieces. As usual the game-used cards from ITG are outstanding and feature satisfying chunks of game-worn material. ITG goes out of its way to tell collectors as specifically as they can where their piece of hockey history came from.

The Ryan Strome game-used jersey pieces shown above is a great example of the kind of memorabilia cards in H&P. As you can see the size of the jersey pieces is massive. I actually really enjoyed this card when pulling it. Everything about it just works. The red, white, and black color scheme makes the card look very bold and modern. It uses simple, bold colors, and clean graphics that don't get in the way and distract or look dated. This is definitely the way ITG should move in terms of their design.

In the same vein is this triple jersey of Jake Allen, Louis Domingue, and Martin Jones. In terms of the card's look, it follows the previous card very well. I enjoy the color scheme and the size of the the three jersey pieces. They are the perfect size for being a three player piece. I do have a couple minor issues with this card that I think ITG could change easily. One is the lack of foil on card. This triple jersey is the silver version of the card. There are parts of the card that are in a flat silver color. Putting some shiny foil on the card (a la what UD does with Artifacts) would make the card really stand out. I'm not saying to make it tacky, but some restrained foil would look great on their gold and silver parallels. The second quibble I have is a common complaint with ITG's cards. The back of the card states that this is one of seventy cards produced. This is better than having to look online for a print run, but I know collectors would really appreciate true serial numbering on the cards like Panini and Upper Deck.

Here is a dual jersey insert card in horizontal format that I pulled. The jersey pieces are are about the same size as in the triple, but this card features larger photos of the players depicted. It's a nice card, but could be improved by the suggestions made with the triple jersey. In this case, it is a pretty rare card as it's the gold version limited to just 10 copies.

The standard autographed cards in H&P remind me a lot of autographed cards from other ITG sets.  They definitely look different than in year's past, but they retain the same feel. As usual ITG is very clever with their masking of sticker autos. The stickers are integrated very well and you can hardly tell that's what they are. Though I'm not a huge fan of the color scheme, it does match well with what ITG was going for with their base set. I always think it's nice when companies think along the lines of making their sets work well within themselves.

Lastly, inserted at about the same rates as the game-used and auto cards are standard insert cards. These cards are printed on the same card stock as the base cards - they just have a different design and come in themes. I am not a fan of these cards as they are boring to me. If I were to include inserts into a product, I would do something to make them collectible and stand out from a crowd. I truly believe that cards don't need to have autos or jerseys on them to be cool, but companies have to be creative. I would have loved to see ITG make some cool inserts that had some different innovation to them. Examples of innovation from other companies are the use of acetate, die-cutting, thicker card stock, special foiling techniques, and special textures. This is an aspect that ITG could explore more.

Inserts/Game-Used/Autos Score:

Overall Rating -
ITG Heroes and Prospects is a set you can't really go wrong buying. It comes at a price point ranging from $75-$90 dollars per box and you get 4-5 nice hits per box. The product is an excellent mix of very young talent, current talent, and legendary talent. With 18 packs per box, it's also a product that you can sit and enjoy opening - well, unless you're trying to get it all as fast as you can to cut down on Youtube video length.

I definitely recommend adding this product to your purchase list. Aside from just getting cards that might be good now, this product is especially good for pulling cards that might be very hot in the future. It's a product sort of similar to baseball's Bowman draft and prospect cards. Many of those cards may not be worth a lot currently, but there may be one or two in there that sky rockets later. And H&P has that same sort of potential. Except here, you also have a chance of getting some pretty darn good current players as well.

Heroes and Prospects is a solid buy and something I wouldn't hesitate getting and trying out. I'm surprised that this box is my first ever! It definitely won't be my last.

Overall Rating:
(not and average)

Here's a box of H&P I got from Dave and Adam's Card World:

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

2011-2012 Crown Royale Review

Hear ye, hear ye!  Panini hath released it's most regal product of the year - Crown Royale!  Known for its grandiose flair and special crown die-cut tops, Crown Royale is certainly a uniquely different type of card product.  Last year's set was a very pleasant surprise - is this year's set still thee king of cards or has it stepped down from the throne?  We'll find out as I review this new release.

Base Card Design -
The Crown Royale base cards are a spectacular example of a great original idea that has pretty much stood the test of time.  The original Crown Royale cards came out in the 90's with crown die-cuts, and still these cards appeal to collectors nearly 20 years later.  Obviously there is not a real tangible connection between ice-hockey or sports and the crown/royalty theme the set has, but for whatever reason, it just works... and it works well.  The base cards feature two elements that make these cards stand out.  The first is obviously the foil crown that adorns the top of the card.  There are generous amounts of foil used, and not just a flat layering of foil, but a textured foil that gives the crown a more three-dimensional feel.  The next feature is the large, up-close photo of the player.  The player image is very large, and in bold, bright color.  Each player looks as if they are jumping right off the card.  One other element of the card worth mentioning is the velvety background.  I love how it subtly displays the team's color.  Nice touch.

There is not a lot of negative to say about the base card - just a couple of nit-pics.  One is that the foil showing the player's name and team can be difficult to see in darker lighting because it blends in with the marble background.  The other is the large '2011-2012' dates on the sides of the card.  In scans these looked pretty hideous, but in person they're not as bad... still a bit too large for my taste.

The back of the base cards look appropriate for what they are.  The graphics follow the same themes as the front of the card.  The backs give collector's a paragraph of information to read about the player and show the player's 10/11 stats.

As with many other Panini products, the company pays tribute to some former NHL greats by adding them to their own subset.  These cards are identical to the standard base cards except in a couple areas.  The most obvious is the use of a black and white photo of the player.  The second is in the large dates on the side fo the card.  Instead of showing the current 11/12 release year, the dates have been changed to show the span of year's that the legend played from.

Rookie cards make their way into the main set of Crown Royale in three tiers.  The first tier is the standard Rookie Royalty card.  These cards have only one difference between them and the standard base card - the foil.  Instead of silver foil, the rookies get a light blue foil.  The next tier of rookie card are the Rookie Royalty Signature cards.  These cards feature an on-card signature of the rookie.  Surprisingly, neither the Rookie Royalty nor the Rookie Royalty Signatures have serial numbering.  The only numbered cards you will find in the main set are the fabulous Rookie Silhouettes Signature Prime Materials cards.  Each of those features a die-cut of the rookie over a large piece of the player's jersey.  These cards are numbered to 99.  They were a huge hit last year and should be again this year.  Some have had complaints that parts of the game-used piece is covered up by the player die-cut, but that hasn't affected most collector's enjoyment of the card.

Base Card Design Score:

Inserts/Game-Used/Autos -
Each box of Crown Royale comes with four packs.  In each of the four packs collectors can find one memorabilia or autograph.  Though in some breaks I've seen a few packs that had two hits in them.... lucky!  On average though, collectors can expect to receive about 2 autos and 2 game-used cards per box.

All of the inserts in Crown Royale will have some sort of royally themed design.  The Lords of the NHL card of Daniel Sedin shown above is very typical of what you'll get.  Everything about the card design is based on medieval concepts - all the way from the ornate graphics to the fonts used on the card.  Everything about these cards is over-the-top, but in a very good way.  The designers at Panini just went all out and it worked out beautifully.

Many of the game-used cards found in Crown Royale will feature single jersey swatches.  This All the King's Men card gives you the single swatch in the shape of a shield.  Having unique shapes is nice, but it doesn't make up for the fact that the jersey piece is so small.  For such an expensive product, it would have been nice to have a more premium sized chunk of jersey.  I guess in this kingdom, the king was a little thrifty.

Above is another example of a small jersey swatch on the card.  This time though, the design element matches my feeling on the small jersey piece.  In the All the King's Men insert, the shield shape made sense and looked pretty good.  In this case the jersey floating in the middle of the card doesn't make a whole of design sense.  It feels as if there just needed to be a spot for a value-added component (the jersey) so they just put it there with little to no thought.

Both jersey cards shown above do not feature any serial numbering.

Some of the autographed inserts you can find in Crown Royale this year are the Scratching the Surface cards (cards that feature the signature of the player on a faux ice rink), Voices of the Game (autographs of famous hockey broadcasters), insert set auto parallels, and Premier Date base card autographs.  The Premier Date autograph of Martin St. Louis shown above is a sticker autograph numbered to 99.  In the box I opened at my local hobby store it was the only serial numbered card I received.

Panini decided to cut down heavily on the number of parallel cards offered this year within Crown Royale.  This year the only parallel (besides auto parallels) to find are the red foil versions of the base cards.  The red foiling looks great on the card, but unfortunately none of these cards are numbered.

You can find other unique inserts sets within Crown Royale such as the hard-to-get Crown Jewels, non-rookie Silhouette Signatures, and recurring Private Signings cards.

Inserts/Autos/Game-Used Score:

Overall Rating -
Crown Royale is a very likable product.  It's quirkiness is what makes it so great.  The design of the product is very fun and there is absolutely nothing else like it in the hockey card market.

In terms of collectibility, the number one top draw will definitely be the Rookie Silhouette cards.  These cards are beautifully designed and desired by many.  These cards are also very difficult to get.  In watching cases of this product get opened, the Silhouette card seems to fall about one per case of 12 boxes.

Would I recommend this product?  Well, I would have to say... maybe.  It really depends on what you are after when making this purchase.  For those who love unique cards, this is a definite buy.  For those looking to flip cards for sale, I would stay away.  Many of the boxes I've seen opened do not yield anything close to the original purchase price.  So many boxes opened were a few (scrub) rookie autographs and a couple jersey cards.  If you just want the big prize of the Silhouette, be prepared to make a pretty big gamble.  Seeing as there are 12 boxes per case, hitting the Silhouette in one or two or even three boxes is a pretty tough proposition.

That being said, Crown Royale is still a very solid product for collectors who want to add cool looking cards to their collections.  I would definitely try a few boxes to see if I could hit a Silhouette, but not put too much more into it after that.

Overall Score:
(not an average)

Here I am at D & P Cards in Sacramento, CA breaking my box of 11/12 Crown Royale.