Between-the-legs dekes, one-handed moves, and Datsyuk-esque puck flips are easy enough to learn but more difficult to pull off in fast-flying games. Defenders can neutralize these new threats thanks to the return of the defensive skill stick, which allows for better gap control and zone coverage to take away passing lanes. Offline players should appreciate the savvier A.I., which is much better at making smart breakout passes, using dekes to gain free ice, and staying in a proper position. Legacy problems like missed puck pick-ups and being unable to make micro movements in small spaces on defense still frustrate, but overall the gameplay feels strong. At first glance, the headline Threes mode introduced in NHL 18 looks like a casual arcade experience, but in prac-tice EA wisely didn’t handicap its con-trols. With a smaller sheet of ice, fast play, and money pucks that can turn the tide of matches, users can show off all their sickest moves and brutal checks in these fast and furious 3v3 competi-tions. EA’s smart implementation of various ways to play with friends (any reviews combination of offline couch play and online team-ups works) makes this a great destination mode for party pick-up games. Just don’t expect much from the more fleshed-out Circuit experience. This grind against CHL, AHL, and NHL teams starts you with a roster of 60-rated players, and rather than reward you with fun-to-play NHL stars and legends at the peak of their powers, it instead doles out lesser-versions of modern players to pad out the journey. This robbed the Circuit of any fun for me, so I recom-mend sticking to the more entertaining exhibition match-ups. For years EA has largely neglected easy improvements to make its franchise mode stronger, but NHL 18 shows that the developers were indeed listening. Fan requests like mid-season contract exten-sions, better draft classes, and stretch-ing player ratings to create a bigger skill gap between stars and fourth liners make this a vastly improved mode. Realizing a pending free agent had no interest in re-signing with my club before the trade deadline gave me the opportunity to get something of value in return instead of letting him walk for nothing. Draft class variety more realistically mimicked the modern NHL; I even saw one class with six NHL-ready players who could jump right into the pros. Player progressions can stagnate or surge based on their cir-cumstances, which makes free agency more interesting. More than once I was able to find a stalled prospect for cheap who eventually realized his full potential with my squad. All of these small but important changes reinvigorate the mode much more than the headline inclusion of expansion drafts.