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NHL 21 coming in October with long-awaited Be a Pro overhaul

Alex Ovechkin nabs the cover for the second time

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

NHL 21, the 30th entry in EA Sports’ annual hockey franchise, will be released Oct. 16 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, publisher Electronic Arts announced Monday.

Alexander Ovechkin, the surefire future Hall-of-Famer from the Washington Capitals, will be the game’s cover athlete. It is Ovi’s second time gracing the cover of an EA Sports NHL title; he previously appeared on the box for 2006’s NHL 07, ahead of his second year in the league. Ovechkin, who will turn 35 next month and sports salt-and-pepper hair these days, is perhaps the greatest pure scorer in NHL history. He has racked up 706 goals over 16 seasons, and — as a tremendously durable player, having never missed more than 10 games in a season — he has a real chance to eclipse Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record of 894 career goals (a mark Gretzky set over the course of 20 seasons).

“It’s a huge honor to be on the cover of NHL 21 for the second cover in my career,” Ovechkin said in a news release. “More importantly, I’m glad I’m looking just as good on the cover this year as I did in 2007!!!”

NHL 21’s debut trailer, which you can watch above, is all about Ovechkin, chronicling his rise to fame as a scoring machine (including footage of some of his most jaw-dropping goals). Ovechkin, the captain of the Washington Capitals since 2010, has spent his entire career there since the team drafted him at No. 1 overall in 2004; he led the Caps to their first Stanley Cup in 2018.

The EA Sports NHL developers at EA Vancouver have been “mapping the game’s innovation against the game-changing impact [Ovechkin] has had on the sport,” EA said in its news release. This year, that takes the form of something for which fans of the franchise have been clamoring for ages: an overhaul to the single-player career mode, Be a Pro.

“Our community has been asking for an invigorating Be A Pro experience that puts them in the same spotlight as their favorite NHL stars, like Alex Ovechkin,” said Sean Ramjagsingh, executive producer of NHL 21. “Ovechkin’s gameplay legacy, on and off the ice, is helping us to bring the next generation of EA SPORTS NHL gameplay to life with NHL 21.”

Integrating off-ice action into Be a Pro is a natural evolution of the mode. It appears that this year’s iteration will feature cutscenes — one of the screenshots released Monday is a wide shot of the Capitals locker room — and interactions (such as press conferences and conversations with team staffers) that offer dialogue choices that can shape your player’s career. Here is EA’s description of Be a Pro in NHL 21:

A brand new Be A Pro experience gives you the chance to live the life of an NHL player, on and off the ice. Impress the front office, go early on draft day, and chase greatness as you earn your spot on the first line, compete for the Stanley Cup, and become the league’s next best. Recognize Future with Be A Pro in NHL 21.

Andrei Svechnikov flips the puck into the net from behind the net in NHL 21
Andrei Svechnikov, the rising star from the Carolina Hurricanes, uses “The Michigan” — a lacrosse-inspired move — to score from behind the net on an unsuspecting goalie.
Image: EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts

EA Vancouver is also promising gameplay improvements such as the ability to pull off highlight reel-worthy dekes (and more pedestrian ones, like a quick move to slip past a defenseman after you’ve chipped the puck ahead to yourself). As for the defensive side of hockey, NHL 21 players should expect goalies to be even tougher to score on.

Other new features in NHL 21 include the arrival of the trade deadline as an event in the franchise mode; ranked seasons, which will be available in all four modes of play in the online suite, World of Chel; and HUT Rush, a “streamlined version” of the Hockey Ultimate Team mode.

NHL 21 is coming only to PS4 and Xbox One. Unlike Madden and FIFA, the two vastly more popular annual EA Sports franchises, it will not be making the jump to next-gen consoles this year. (EA handled the previous generational transition, in 2013-14, the same way. That didn’t go so well for NHL 15, the series’ first outing on the current consoles, but we’ll have to see how things play out this time around.) However, the Xbox One box art for NHL 21 notes that the game will be playable on Xbox Series X via backward compatibility. Sony has yet to announce any details on how the PlayStation 5 will handle PS4 games.

In case you’re wondering, yes: Oct. 16 is about one month later than EA typically releases its NHL game. The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the world at large and the sports world in particular, of course. The playoffs for the NHL’s 2019-20 season are happening right now, and the league has tentatively scheduled the start of its 2020-21 regular season for Dec. 1. So it’s not surprising that things are a bit hinky this year.

Update: Asked about NHL 21’s later release date, an Electronic Arts representative said, “COVID has affected everyone and we’ve had to make adjustments to WFH, which has affected our development timelines, but we’re proud with how we’ve been able to do so and how we were given more time to release our game.”

The spokesperson also said that EA didn’t unveil NHL 21 until now because the event around which the company usually schedules its reveal — the NHL Awards, which typically takes place in June after the conclusion of the playoffs — was canceled this year.