For returning fans
So let's talk a bit more about Dallas' move to Seattle.
My kneejerk reaction to owner mode was to hate it. Owner mode is pretty much the worst thing about Madden, requiring that you manipulate a lot of worthless numbers just so you can run out of money for free agency. The dirty secret of owner mode is that none of the choices you make outside of relocation actually matter. If you win, you will do well. End of story.
Happily, though, NHL 17's owner mode does have some merit. Unlike Madden, which features preset teams, NHL 17 lets you create a fully customized franchise when you relocate to another city. Once the move is approved, you can set about customizing your team's uniforms, your arena's music, and whether you want flames or smoke coming from the scoreboard when you get a goal. You can even pick a unique goal horn (I went with the Sharks horn because it's the best). This process made me much more invested in my newly-created Seattle North Stars, which was not something I was expecting (even if I wish it were possible to keep my old uniforms when moving).
If you're not interested in relocating, though, owner mode's benefits are a bit more nebulous. Budgeting isn't as onerous as it is in Madden, but it still feels like pointless busywork. Attendance is ostensibly realistic this year; but playing as the rudderless Arizona Coyotes in January, I didn't see an appreciable dip in attendance even against non-division rivals (though there were definitely a few empty seats).
The best that can be said about owner mode is that it gives Be a GM a bit more shape and structure. The owner asks you to do things like upgrade your arena's parking lot and win the opening game of the season; and if you do so, then they're happy and (probably) won't fire you. That's fine, but it's still hard to care about accumulating money when the benefits aren't really obvious outside of signing more free agents. Pre-release material made it seem as if I could customize my arena and maybe pick a new goal song, but the "Arena Customization" option appears inaccessible unless you move and get a new building. At least you can see the crowd all wearing the same shirt on t-shirt night.
(Don't get me started on the Wild having a one-star arena just because it's 17 years old now. One star? It's still one of the best arenas in the league).
Outside of owner mode, NHL 17 is more of an incremental improvement than last year. Hardcore fans will be most interested in the return of physical play in front of the net - a last-generation feature that's been sorely missed over the past couple entries - which has the effect of making the gameplay feel more kinetic. Battles in front of the net mean something again. It also forces you to think more than ever about how you set individual lines. I wound up going in and completely rebalancing my lines around finesse, power, and pure checking to account for the changes, which is definitely welcome in a hockey sim.
With this addition, NHL 17 is now about where it was with NHL 14 in terms of gameplay... which is kind of the problem. I'm sure EA Canada can point out lots of little improvements to player locomotion and AI, but the point is that it doesn't feel that different. The way players skate, interact with the puck, and take shots feels artificial to me - as if they're skating and stickhandling on air - and the players themselves only barely resemble their real-life counterparts. It's hard to put my finger on it, but it just doesn't feel quite right. And until NHL moves over to the Frostbite engine alongside FIFA, I don't think it's going to get any better.
More broadly, the series feels kind of rudderless to me right now. This year's feature set feels like a grab bag of random improvements: player chemistry for HUT, a threadbare Draft Champions mode in which you draft a team and try to win four games in a row, owner mode. Some of these improvements are welcome - physical play, team relocation, additional classes for the EASHL, and the World Cup of Hockey - but it all feels a bit haphazard to me. Most of these additions have been in other games for years now. If NHL can't compete with other sports games in terms of polish, it would at least be nice if it didn't always feel late to the party.
In the end, if competence is all EA Canada aspires to with NHL, then they've reached it. But in the competitive and fast-changing sports sim landscape, mere competence isn't necessarily enough. If NHL is going to compete with its paucity of resources, it needs to be bold and inventive: not a me-too sports sim living on ideas from the previous generation. I don't know where the series can go from here: Annual sports sims have a momentum to them that can be hard to reverse. But for the sake of the series, I hope EA figures it out soon.
Menus and loading times can be pretty sluggish at times. Head-to-head play is really hurt by the inability to set team strategies ahead of time.
EASHL is still the best thing NHL 17 has going for it. If you can get a group of friends together, it's a delight building up a team and steadily upgrading your arena. The rest of the modes are still a bit weak, though owner mode is ultimately a net positive.
The music, goal horns, and sound effects are all great. The commentary... is not so great. Actually, it's probably the worst commentary you'll find in a sports sim right now. Mike Emrick's repetitive and robotic commentary is more noticeable than ever in this version.
NHL 17 looks great when you're playing; but when the camera is in close, the players have an oddly misshapen look to them. The live footage intercuts make for a pleasingly realistic presentation, and it's fun to see the mascots in the crowd.
NHL 17 has some real strengths, but it still feels like it hasn't quite made it out of the previous generation. The gameplay is strong but increasingly dated; the feature set feels haphazard, and there are lots of niggling quality-of-life issues. It feels more and more like the series is stuck in a rut, and it's hard to say where EA Canada should take it next. For now, NHL 17 is another decent outing, but the next step remains elusive.