Like this year’s cover star, Alex “The Great Eight” Ovechkin, EA’s NHL series faces every season with lofty expectations and widespread criticism about living up to its potential. Fans hate watching the same issues carry over and want to see growth in the offseason to raise the game. EA Vancouver is addressing that in a few different ways for NHL 21, with improvements to A.I., adding more spectacular dekes to your arsenal, and giving Be A Pro mode a much-needed upgrade. It could be just enough to tide us over until the team finally transitions to creating a truly new-gen hockey experience.

New Creative Attack Dekes Give You More Options On The Ice

This year, EA Vancouver wants its on-ice play to match the fast speed and skill-based focus of today’s game. Therefore, it’s upping the offensive tools at your disposal, especially when it comes to flashy creative attack dekes. For instance, this year you can do “The Michigan,” the lacrosse-style skill move made popular by players like the Hurricanes’ Andrei Svechnikov, where you raise the puck from behind the net and just toss it in on an unsuspecting goalie. The Lightning’s Nikita Kurcherov’s sweet skills are also getting a place in NHL 21, such as his no-move deke where he fakes forehand, backhand but lets the puck just slide through to fool the goalie. 

Even if doing high-skilled moves isn’t your thing, you have plenty of options on ways to create amazing plays this year. You can bank pucks off the back of the net for nifty passes like we saw Sidney Crosby do this year, use slip dekes to chip the puck ahead to yourself, and then there’s standstill dekes, where you can windmill, toe drag, and tap deke from a standstill to quickly evade defenders.

EA Vancouver also said it paid close attention to improving teammate A.I., so they will better support your decisions and make smarter ones themselves when it comes to driving plays and finishing. They should be better at recognizing passing lanes, shot opportunities, and what the user-controlled player is doing. Goalies have been overhauled with better decision making and positioning alongside new animations and desperation saves.

Be A Pro Is Getting A Much-Needed Upgrade

After years of being left in the dust, creative director William Ho said EA Vancouver pulled a ton of people and resources into upgrading Be A Pro for NHL 21. The team recognizes that fans want a more immersive experience with a narrative, choices that matter, and rewards for performing well. For this year, you will be charting your own path to legend status by gunning for the Calder and Stanley Cup. 

You can choose to start in the CHL, NHL, or Europe, and will be doing everything from managing the press to making promises to your coach. New scenes and conversation dialogue make these moments more intense than before and can have unique consequences. For instance, media scrums in the dressing room may allow you to make promises to build up your reputation, such as if you’re going to come up with a big goal or say you’re already a frontrunner for the Calder Cup. Whatever you promise will lead to different objectives, like earning the first star next game.

EA Vancouver said they have hundreds of different story beats that cover all of the major moments, adding “thousands and thousands” of new lines for conversations with your agent, the media GM, coach, and your teammates. Commentator James Cybulski now hosts his own sports talk radio show in the mode and will comment on how you’re doing and if you’re living up to being a generational talent. “[It’s] to help you calibrate, ‘Am I doing enough or not?’ If you’re not doing well enough, it’s motivating you do better,” Ho says. 

The new likeability system is integral to your success and comes in three forms: teammate, management, and brand. You’ll want to take opportunities to hang out with teammates to build your bond, as this means they’re more likely to pass to you on the ice and make tape-to-tape passes. Management likeability influences earning more ice time and making your way onto special teams. Getting your brand likeability up gives you more endorsement opportunities and salary bumps. These are important as they allow you to purchase perks to enhance abilities and other things that will influence likeability meters, like a house party to impress your teammates. 

Some other small tweaks go a long way. A revamped hub allows you to access everything in a single screen, such as your next big event, likeability ratings, line score, and various objectives. Your progression is tracked after each game to show more than just the typical coach feedback, actually revealing yhow close you are to being promoted or demoted to a different line and where your performance shined and faltered. The skill trees has remained pretty much the same, except for one addition: dialogue. You can now invest in persuade traits such as diplomat or charm. “You’ll see certain responses with charm or diplomat that are locked in the conversations unless you have that trait, which opens up more conversation responses, as well as more different promises that you can access,” Ho says. 

New Mode Hut Rush Rewards Your Skill To Pull Off Stylish Moves

New mode HUT Rush is more about your prowess to pull off stylish moves than grinding out a win. You get points for the more skillful moves you use, such as trying to score between the legs or pulling off a one-handed deke goal. When you score, you get multipliers up to 5x on the last three skills you used, for a maximum of a 15x multiplier on a goal. It’s all about finding the best combos to get the highest score. With all the points you rack up, they unlock bonus HUT items each week, which can give nice perks, from coins to elite players.

EA Vancouver is mixing up the event types, so you can create teams suited for different situations. For instance, you can play games rooted in the popular Threes mode that have money pucks and the ability to play as mascots to keep things interesting. You can also partake in the standard 3v3 and 5v5 setups. The mode was also designed to be super fast to get into, even offering certain events such as a quick draft that you can do on the spot to get in and just play. 

World of CHEL Introduces Club Finals And Practice Mode

World of CHEL isn’t getting massive changes, but some long requested features are included. First of all, all four modes: Ones, Threes, Drop-In, and Clubs will all have separate ranked leaderboards and progression. You will earn personalized rewards for every rank up in these modes, and a new progression-tracking screen will show how close you are to each rank and reward tier. Your rank icons will appear in the intros, after goals, and in post games, so you’re really able to show off your accomplishments. And at season’s end, you collect rewards in any of the modes that you’re ranked in. 

New for EASHL fans is club finals, a way to have ultimate bragging rights by earning the title of season champion. The last two weeks of each ranked season are dubbed the EASHL Club Finals, where all clubs (3v3 and 6v6) are seeded into five different cups: rookie, pro, all-star, superstar, and elite. If you win the cup, you get a bevy of rare rewards and a championship banner to hang in your custom EASHL arena. 

Fans have long requested ways to practice with their created characters for EASHL. Now you can free skate to test out your loadout and traits before a game. You can also practice with your teammates in two different ways. An open practice mode lets you test your passing and shooting against a goalie (A.I. or human controlled), but the biggest addition is scrimmage mode, which puts you in an actual game situation and lets you cooperate against an A.I. team at the difficulty level of your choice. You can also now select your server manually, so you can pick what’s best for your network performance. Another widely requested feature, the ability to report toxic players while playing the game, is finally there. Before you had to go to the website to do so, but now there is a “report content” button right in the menu.

Franchise Mode Gets A Trade Deadline Frenzy Minigame

Last but not least, Franchise mode is getting a fun new minigame to capitalize on the chaos that comes with Trade Deadline day. GMs are extremely busy in this period, deciding whether to be sellers or buyers and trying to finagle the best deal for their clubs. It always felt like Franchise mode never was able to recreate this, but there’s hope with NHL 21.

Now leading up to the trade deadline you’ll get reports of what players may be on the block that you may want to scout, and when the day hits on the calendar, it becomes a minigame from 6 AM until the day closes. “It’s a frantic mad dash monitoring available players on the block, making proposals to teams, seeing counter proposals, seeing a feed on the screen of transactions as they happen,” Ho says. “I’m really happy with the way our game modes team has captured the frenzy of that day. The whole ‘If you don’t act now, are you going to be left hanging without the player that you really want to acquire on the trade deadline?’”   

What has you most excited about NHL 21? Let us know in the comments below!

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