After a slow start this console generation, the NHL franchise finally found its footing in 2017. NHL 18 introduced the fun arcade mode NHL Threes, injected more puckhandling creativity with a new layer of dekes, and gave defenders more control over their gaps with the defensive skill stick. All were positive steps in the right direction, but developer EA Canada has a lot of grinding to do if it wants to stand among the best sports games.
Game Informer’s resident puckheads Matt Bertz, Kim Wallace, and Matthew Kato put their heads together to formulate a winning strategy on how the NHL series could take the next big leap forward.
- Fix Puck Pickups Once And For All
The number-one glaring gameplay issue year in and year out, EA Canada needs to finally find a more organic system for puck pickups. Far too often players don’t have the awareness to locate the puck at their feet and gain possession, resulting in turnovers or missed opportunities during what should be a routine play for an NHL player.
- Making Skating More Fluid
For whatever reason, too many players in NHL still turn like the Titanic rather than like the agile, world-class athletes they are supposed to simulate. We’d like to see the system evolve to allow players to turn more realistically, as well as more fidelity of movement in small spaces to both allow defenders to stay in position better and allow savvy puck handlers to glance past potentially devastating checks.
- Rework The Checking System
How many times have you seen diminutive Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane blow up a much bigger defender in real life? You have a better chance of seeing the Phoenix Coyotes hoist the cup. In NHL, you see this type of physics-defying feat more often than you should. The checking system should factor in size, speed, and weight more realistically. Kaner shouldn’t be able to knock people off the puck – he’s better off using his stick. Menacing Jets defensemen Dustin Byfuglien, on the other hand, should have no problem clearing bodies from the front of the net.
- Embrace Player Differentiation
We’ve harped incessantly on this point for almost a decade, and last year EA Canada finally created a bit of a gulf between fourth liners and first liners. We remain convinced the game would greatly benefit from stretching out the player ratings further like Madden has. We’d also love to see EA introduce player traits and specialties like instigator, master puck deflector, needle threader, penalty shot specialist, etc. to further distinguish the behavior between players.
- Lose The Bad Angle Cheese
The NHL series is in a relatively good place when it comes to scoring. Getting to high-percentage scoring areas like the slot greatly benefit your productivity, but we still see some questionable goals happen way too frequently, particularly in bad angle shots along the half-wall. We’d like to see these cheap goals happen less frequently to both preserve competitive balance online and bring goalie save percentages up to a more realistic number when playing against the curiously accurate CPU A.I.
- Revamp Board Play & Physicality
Board play hasn’t received a proper re-evaluation for some years now. No one wants to see the return of suction animations, and the programming can’t be easy, but we’d love to see a new system that introduces more physicality. With puck possession at stake, we see players pin and elbow each other, use their size and strength to box out the opposition, and dig frantically for the puck with their sticks. Almost none of this happens in the video game. We’d also like to see A.I. teammates help more when you’re pinned or there’s a scrum in the corner. A dedicated teammate assist button like FIFA has would help in these situations as well as face-off tie-ups. In terms of overall physicality, we’d like to see more jostling in front of the goalie (including how it affects goalies at the top of their crease) and realistic garbage goals, including those that are poked through pads or trickle over the line.
- Introduce Roster Sharing
Not everyone agrees with the ratings EA Canada gives players, whether it’s not punishing regression in aging players or being too stingy with rookie ratings. We’d love it if they could just give us the damn keys and let us do it ourselves. Roster sharing could enable dedicated users to redo the entire league to create more differentiation, and allow us to import proper draft classes for a more realistic experience.
- Develop An Advanced Passing System
The passing system in NHL already allows users to bank the puck off the boards and raise the puck for a saucer pass, but we’d like to see this system evolve once more to factor in the amazing stretch passes we see defensive all-stars like Erik Karlsson and Ryan Suter occasionally pull off. We’d also like to see more flourish in the passing game like amazing behind-the-back passes some of the best dishers in the NHL pull off. This would have to be tempered, of course, as currently no-look passes can be overpowered.
- Offscreen Indicators
Since NHL doesn’t have a radar system like a soccer game might, it’s impossible to tell if your linemates have gone for a line change or whether your defensemen are stationed at the point when you’re in the offensive zone. Indicators at the edge of the screen would be an easy way to let you know if any offscreen teammates are available for a pass.
- More Teammate A.I. Awareness
Your A.I. teammates have gotten better about staying onside and facing the right directions, but work could still be done so they don’t bunch up and get in your way when you’re carrying the puck. Player switching to the appropriate player could also improve.
- More Player Likenesses
We say this every year – there are just too many players sporting generic faces in this game. We’re not just talking fourth liners, either. Plenty of top-tier talent still doesn’t look like their real-world counterparts. If access to the players is a problem, EA Canada needs to find another solution. A new player model generator that delivers more varied draft classes and created players would also be welcome.
- New Commentary Team
After a few years of Doc, Eddie, and Ray, it’s becoming clear this team never gets enough time in the studio for recording commentary. Lines repeat way too often, and the team rarely dives into league happenings outside of the game at hand. NHL should take a page out of the Madden playbook and hire commentators that can dedicate more time to making the play-by-play and analysis dynamic.
- Expand Player Data
When you pull up the player profile, as it stands you get some basic information about their skill set and stats. We’d like to see this expand to include a log of player movement transactions, rating trajectory, and heavily adopted metrics like the Corsi and Fenwick. The more information about a player, the better.
- Add Authentic Coaches
Many sports games have already incorporated head coaches, but the NHL bench…