A lot of “state of the game” hockey chatter in recent months has focused on the modern NHL lacking true game-breaking performers. Scoring has stagnated and creativity has stifled as teams focus more than ever on defending and playing the full 200 feet of the rink. You could levy a similar complaint about NHL 17, which makes several safe changes across its various game modes but does little to truly distinguish itself from its predecessors or other sports games.
The generally competent gameplay from NHL 16 returns, with a few minor distinctions. The puck feels looser than it has in previous years, largely because subtle contact between sticks and bodies more quickly disrupts possession from the puck carrier. Goalies showcase a larger array of reactionary saves, and a new net battle mechanic gives defenders the ability to tie up forwards parked at the goal mouth to prevent deflections. The net battles rarely manifest themselves in regular play, but prove a useful tool in the popular EASHL 6v6 competitive league.
All of these changes help the game better mimic its real-world counterpart. That said, NHL 17 still has problems with its transition game. Players sometimes pivot and turn with the grace of a cruise liner changing course, which hampers a defender’s ability to move the puck out of the back end as the forecheck bears down. One of the touted changes for NHL 17 – puck pick-ups – seem improved in open ice. But don’t be surprised to see players struggle along the boards and goal cages. These errors can often be chalked up to a lack of head tracking and awkward player orientation. I saw defenders put the puck in their own net, forwards filling in the slot only to back skate right before the puck arrives, and moments where several players struggle to locate the puck by the side of the goal.
The standout mode of NHL 17 is once again the EASHL, which is improved this year thanks to more diversity in the available player classes and a progression system that lets you unlock new team and player customization options. I’m still on the fence whether this class-based approach is better than giving players the ability to pick an archetype and customize within a set of parameters, but at least the current system makes sure the ice doesn’t tilt too far toward players who invest all their time into the mode. The unlockable cosmetic jersey and arena enhancements let users add some personal flair to their teams, however, the options are limited. Empowering player expression by allowing them to create custom logos and choose from a greater assortment of player hair styles and equipment would make this fun mode even better.
The big selling point of franchise mode this year is team relocation, which lets users uproot teams to geographically similar locations (no moving the Arizona Coyotes to Quebec) and customize their new jerseys, team name, and arena. Team operations responsibilities also give you control of ticket/concession pricing and building maintenance, similar to Madden’s owner mode. These aren’t bad additions, but I would trade all of them for a competent scouting system, the ability to resign players during the season, and a lively free agency period with bids and counterbids. Addressing these recurring deficiencies would go much further toward making this a fun mode than making users make mundane business decisions like when to repair a bathroom.
Single-player modes centered on taking one player through a pro career have proven popular in recent years, but NHL’s version hasn’t changed much. Commentators now acknowledge major moments in your career and coaches offer more detailed feedback that better instructs you how to can improve your play. Even with these new touches, the experience feels bare-boned compared to the story-driven affairs like NBA 2K’s MyCareer, and does little to capture the feeling of being a real NHL player.
Hockey Ultimate Team, a World Cup of Hockey mode, and the hockey version of the Draft Champions mode introduced in Madden last year round out the NHL 17 suite. Each of these offers a decent play experience, even if they lack the depth of other EA Sports games. Building via collectible cards in HUT is addictive, but it doesn’t have the single-player offerings of its counterparts. The World Cup of Hockey doesn’t let you make roster decisions to get snubs like P.K. Subban in the lineup, and Draft Champions lacks the strategic depth of the Madden version, largely because the player ratings are so inflated in NHL you never field a roster with a true deficiency.
I love hockey, so I’ll play NHL 17 for most of this upcoming winter. But similar to my hometown Minnesota Wild, I have mixed feelings about the quality on display. EA Canada continues to make minor improvements across the board, yet the NHL series has yet to tap its true potential this generation. As any sports fan will tell you, there’s always next year.
NHL 17 makes some interesting changes, but many legacy issues persist.