Recently, I covered how NHL 20 could appeal to casual fans and those looking to get back into the series. I glowed about the polish since I played last (NHL 18), and embarked upon my own expansion draft franchise. I loved it in 2018 as I had limited player familiarity and no regional team to support, so I was thrilled to see create-a-team, expansion draft and division realignment all featured in NHL 20.
NHL 20 Expansion Draft
As in 2018, I attempted to reboot my beloved now-defunct AHL darling Houston Aeros. Two years later, “Aeros” was not an option for pre-recorded audio, and no Aeros logo existed in the vintage logos section of the jersey editor. This was surprising as they were the Minnesota Wild’s AHL affiliate as recently as 2013, but I’m sure there were licensing issues somewhere along the way. Making my own mascot was a blast, and adding the ridiculous goal celebrations was fun as well. Customization was easy, engrossing, and detailed, though I will highly recommend doing it in create-a-team first and then selecting them as your franchise team.
In an effort to familiarize myself with the game, I decided that my Aeros will play it straight and set themselves up for long-term success instead of mortgaging the future by trading draft picks for players that I recognized. Owner mode felt a little cluttered and confusing at first. There is a tremendous amount of front office work to be done before your first regular season game, but whatever the game does not answer for you in help screens, you can Google.
However, as a casual fan, I had no idea that some of the players I selected in the expansion draft would already be pending free agents. I am not an NHL GM in the making just yet, so while the draft could be an exciting experience to simulate that for well-learned fans, I found myself lost in a headache of contract re-signings. I kept the salary cap on to simulate the most genuine NHL experience that I could, and was worried by the compliant warning that I had toasted the rosters. But we pressed onward to the NHL Draft.
The entire draft experience was incredible, allowing me to trade up for picks, follow it in real-time and take a timeout. It was a very, very engrossing experience that all sports titles should adopt in some capacity. Being able to view the entire draft class ahead of the draft and set up a draft board was a tremendous surprise, and as a die-hard baseball fan, I would love to see MLB The Show set up something similar.
Additionally, the entire re-signing phase felt like real negotiations. It was a little complicated but remained fun throughout. NHL signing rules were easy to get down, but I surprisingly struggled mightily just to find my lines and assess my team’s needs. My owner goals? Add a bunch of parking and acquire a first-round pick. Downtown Houston will be thrilled. Fair enough, omnipresent benevolent billionaire.
Now For The Actual Season
My first game finished a shocking 8-7. This included a wildly lopsided 18 penalty minutes for me and only two for the AI, as well as my team giving up the tying 7-7 goal with 2.5 seconds left in the third period. Two of their goals came on miraculous “glitch” goals that reminded me of why I gave up on the series in the first place, and had I not found myself with opportunities to respond each time, it would have been a crushing blow after the long offseason. Instead, ridiculous goal total and all, I found myself ready for more after a thrilling first game.
Occasional telepathic AI will steal the puck in improbable circumstances, and for the first few games, it felt almost impossible just to clear the puck without it magnetically flying at an opposing skater. Glitch goals exist but were fewer and further between after the first game. James Cybulski is an exceptional commentator and keeps the energy up with his calls. Muting or lowering the volume transforms the experience (think Uncut Gems without the music and arguing) Outside of recycled dialogue (especially on face-offs), Cybulski fills Mike Emrick and Gary Thorne’s shoes well.
On the topic of audio, we must discuss the frequency at which Snoop Dogg joins the broadcast booth. Originally, I thought it was a nice touch since his first appearance came against the Kings at the Staples Center, but then he started appearing all the time on the road. His dialogue comes off as very organic and authentic, though, and in my opinion, EA did a great job with this feature. I appreciated the novelty, but I could not help but wonder why he is popping in on a Houston Aeros-Columbus Blue Jackets game in Columbus. This could have been an interesting opportunity to license other real-life regional fans to weigh in via this manner instead of The Doggfather dropping by every four games or so.
My first 4 games:
- 8-7 Win
- 6-5 Win
- 3-4 Loss
- 2-1 Win
All thrilling games decided by one goal. Nail-biters, comebacks, blown leads, and back-and-forth scoring all combined to immediately hook me for the foreseeable future. My Animal Crossing island became neglected as I spent more time with my expansion club.
There were some insanely lopsided penalty minutes in the first few games. Poke checks were automatic tripping calls, and my players were routinely flagged for boarding while the AI delivered punishment-free trips and cheap shots. Once I adjusted the penalty frequency sliders to balance things out, the game’s magic was restored once more. But after a while, scores became more and more lopsided. It felt altogether too easy to pile on the goals, and it was no longer engrossing when being up 7-2 in the second period was a regular occurrence.
It was time to increase the difficulty. After three blowout losses, I found myself on the other side of the gun. One difficulty level is too easy while the next is just too hard. I watched as a thrilling 2-1 first period wound up a frustrating 4-3 after the second period due to miracle glitch goals and an own-goal that would have never happened in real life. The CPU was routinely scoring on shots with heavy traffic in the front of net, a situation that finds my players drilling the puck into one another and the game chastising me with the crimson flashing “shot blocked” feedback.
There is no denying that this is a tremendously better on-ice product than when I last played. Perennial releases do not always guarantee gameplay upgrades, but it has been discernibly easier to sustain a controlled offensive attack in NHL 20 than any iteration I have played before, not to mention a swarm of additional polish and gameplay improvements. However, the rubber-band AI makes for, unfortunately, a frequently frustrating experience. It is no fun to routinely score double-digit goals on a difficulty setting that practically removes goalies from the equation, and it is similarly unpleasant to see the next incremental difficulty turn the AI into telepathic Ovechkin clones with pinpoint accuracy.
I do not mind losing games in any franchise mode, but when losses come in the final seconds of a game via my own player blindly shoving the puck into my own net when he would have passed it up to any of his teammates, it becomes very difficult to justify playing further. When NHL 20 plays well, it is a frantic, thrilling affair that exceptionally re-creates the drama of an NHL game. When it is handcuffed by jaw-dropping glitches and unrealistic AI decisions, it begs the head-scratching “why did I just sit through that?” The trouble is, so far in my expansion franchise, I won’t know what I’m going to get until sometimes as late as the middle of the second period.
If any NHL die-hards have recommendations for sliders to cure this, please let me know in the comments. For now, I will conduct my own experiments to keep the new-look Houston Aeros rolling. Bottom line, the expansion draft and the surrounding elements are really well done, and now I just hope I can find a gameplay balance that works for me. All in all, this casual fan is still invested.