The hockey community is proud, tight-knit, and fiercely loyal to its sport. The newest version of EA’s long-running hockey sports game simulation NHL 17 invests heavily in pleasing that community and for the most part does exactly that but not much more. The modes and features where NHL 17 is strongest reflect a desire to appeal to its base, including the excellent online-cooperative mode called EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL) and a fully-realized World Cup of Hockey. Whether that is enough to appeal to a broader group of sports video game fans in a crowded and intensely competitive release calendar is the biggest question facing the game now as well as in the future.
NHL 17 grabs onto its main advantage over the other sports games on the market and rides it hard with EASHL. Already the best mode of its kind available it’s bigger than ever this season. Hockey is well-suited to cooperative play, and the feeling of getting a few friends together on the ice to move up the rankings and then be rewarded by unlocking impressive team design and arena customization options based upon that success (though restricted to presets and no ability to create your own) is intriguing and enjoyable in NHL 17.

Even better, winning in EASHL is all about smart choices and organic improvement, not from just buying upgrades. As you learn how to play with your friends, the well-designed player options allow for the crafting of a team built upon individual strengths. Of course, having fun in EASHL is entirely dependent upon being able to schedule time with those friends. So if that’s not particularly easy for someone to do they’ll be missing out on the best aspects of NHL 17.

The World Cup of Hockey begins September 17 and NHL 17 includes it prominently. International play has been under-represented in the series for years so it comes as a welcome addition to be able to play as the eight authentic teams in the tournament. The full World Cup tournament is included, from the correct groupings all the way through the championship match. There’s no ability to complete a tournament online unfortunately and it’s likely that once the regular NHL season cranks up the WCOH will be quickly forgotten.

Draft Champions mode makes its way in after first being introduced to Madden and FIFA last year. The presentation of the draft is excellent – though the “legend” cards are difficult to read and discern exactly who they are – and it’s a fun process to complete. The problem becomes one that has plagued the series over recent years: player ratings that don’t differentiate enough between the lower-tier and the very-good-to-elite. It doesn’t feel especially rewarding once the games begin because the players for the most part feel and perform similarly. Additionally those that don’t play the team-building mode Ultimate Team won’t find much incentive to playing Draft Champions considering the rewards earned apply only to Ultimate Team.

Ownership duties make their way into Franchise this year. The aspects such as setting ticket and concession prices is generally somewhat unsatisfying but the big selling point is the ability to relocate franchises. There are 19 cities to choose from including Las Vegas (the new team there won’t be in until NHL 18), Seattle, and Quebec City. Unfortunately, once again there is no online component to Franchise, so players are relegated to going through their seasons isolated on their own without the social component of participating with others.

The NHL series is arguably the least accessible sports game on the market. That’s not entirely the fault of EA Sports but rather the sport itself doesn’t lend to making a “simulation” game easy to pick up and play with a fair amount of success. The developers continue to attempt adding ways to help players learn and improve but it doesn’t seem to be enough. There’s probably no simple answer here except how arcade modes or standalone arcade games always acted as a great bridge for those with budding interest in a sport in the past. Unfortunately those games have practically gone extinct.

NHL 17 arrives as a well-oiled machine having built off a successful bounce back year for the series in 2015. While it relies on tried-and-true modes and features, it delivers well on the most important aspects of a modern sports video game simulation. Newcomers to the series will appreciate the variety and depth of options it offers though it’s an exceedingly difficult game to grasp at its introduction, while veterans experience mature on-ice gameplay that addresses many issues that were present in preceding iterations while still leaving that all-too-familiar feeling that not a whole lot has really changed.

NHL 17’s biggest issues are largely out of its control – namely, making a name for itself in an utterly jammed sports video game release calendar. Without a ‘jumping off the box’ new feature it will struggle to fight for attention from the other big-time titles releasing right around it. Lacking a major new feature like FIFA 17’s all-new story mode, the massive appeal of the NFL that Madden 17 enjoys, or the recent history of spectacular quality and ridiculous level of content that NBA 2K17 offers, NHL 17 will have to hope that hockey fans have the budget and inclination to purchase it this fall.