Replaying NHL 2004 — The Greatest Hockey Video Game Ever (Part 2)

In this installment, we sim the 2003-04 NHL season and see how <em>our</em> version of the Dallas Stars fare.

Welcome back, everyone. Last week, I (re)introduced you all to the magical world of NHL 2004, AKA the greatest hockey video game of all time. Many of you enjoyed the walk down memory lane in addition to sharing your own favorite NHL games growing up, so I figured we’d give this series a second part.

In Part 1, we started a Dynasty Mode as the Dallas Stars, signed some top free agents like Joe Nieuwendyk, and traded for some young stars like Marion Gaborik and Rick Nash. Today, we’ll simulate the 2003-04 season and see how our version of the Stars fare.

But before we do that, we have a couple more trades to make...

Okay, first of all, I decided to restart my Dynasty Mode and decided not to trade for Rick Nash. Yes, this is a video game, but I felt that trading for the first overall pick from just a year prior for basically nothing was just too unrealistic for my tastes. Rest assured this was the only reason, and was definitely not because my coaching staff hates Nash and never wanted to play him. No sirree, strictly a moral decision.

I still traded Pierre Turgeron (82 base overall) though, this time sending him and Richard Matvichuk (77) to the Washington Capitals in return for defenseman Steve Eminger (76) and forward Brian Sutherby (76). Eminger was the 12th overall pick in the 2002 draft and was never a big name in the NHL (488 games played over 10 years), but in this game he was just a sophomore with an incredibly high potential. I didn’t write it down for some reason, but I believe it’s either 96 or 99.

Sutherby is a more recognizable name given his brief three-year stint in Dallas, where he finished his career. Like Eminger, he never quite lived up to his first-round status (26th overall in 2000), but with a 91 potential, he has the makings of a future star in our virtual world.

Finally, I also traded Scott Young (81) for for Dallas Stars legend Ales Hemsky (75 overall, 92 potential) and a fourth-round pick. This is solely because Robert shared Part 1 on Twitter, and I wanted to show him my appreciation. You’re welcome, Robert.

Okay sorry, one last thing that I forgot to mention from last time — see the little skate with wings and the hockey stick next to Mike Modano’s portrait? Those are called Player Icons, and they’re basically a snapshot as to what the player is best at as well as how well they’re playing. Here’s the complete list, courtesy of the game manual:

Again, I’d like to point out the realism that this game strives for. Not only are there player suspensions — applicable to a player on any team except for the Boston Bruins — but your player can get the flu. That’s right, the flu. As in real life, players can still play through it, but they’re going to be negatively affected.

Thankfully for our game, there is no COVID-19 that can pop up and shut down the season, which is yet another layer of realism. I mean, can you imagine the NHL cancelling hockey in 2004? Preposterous.

Okay, enough of all that. It’s finally time to sim our first season. I’m not going to provide a weekly breakdown or anything as that would take too long. We’re just going to jump straight to the Stanley Cup playoffs, with a few pit stops along the way.

This is another cool feature from this game — NHL Power Play Magazine, which was a real thing mind you. It’s usually used in situations like making the playoffs or announcing your team’s first-round draft pick, but every now and then it pops up after a notable game. For instance, this was after a 6-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers.

In Part 1, I mentioned that my biggest issue with this game was that you couldn’t turn off auto-management for Edit Lines. A close second, however, is the CPU trades — both the ones they offer you and the ones the game makes with itself.

First of all, they’re almost always awful. I mean look at that thing — Brenden Morrow is my best young player after Gaborik, and John Erskine has a 90+ potential rating. And the Vancouver Canucks want them both for Adam Graves (who in real life had retired before this season) and *checks Wikipedia* Tyler Bouck? I mean, come on.

The second issue is that you’re unable to look at any details of the trade or present a counter offer. For example, this trade actually looks good for me on the surface, but I know Hemsky is a 92 potential. Maybe Olvestad and/or Willis are too, but I can’t check on this screen. Instead, I have to reject and go all the way to the trade screen myself. This one is more inconvenience than anything else, but it’s still a pain.

Oh, and it should go without saying that I declined both of these trades. I mean, I wouldn’t rule out trading Morrow, but Hemsky?!? I couldn’t do that to Robert — it’d break his heart.

And just like that, we’ve reached the end of the season! As you can see, we made the playoffs, which puts us on par with the real-life 2003-04 squad.

We finished sixth in the NHL with 98 points (remember, we turned off the loser point and reintroduced ties), but that’s only good for fourth in the West. Which is honestly understandable given the times. Over the previous nine seasons, only four clubs had won the Stanley Cup — the New Jersey Devils (3), the Detroit Red Wings (3), the Colorado Avalanche (2), and the Dallas Stars (1).

Of those four, only the Devils were in the Eastern Conference at the time, so the West truly was a powerhouse. In fact, remember the Upgrades screen from last time? For the scouting department, the “Western Scout” is one level higher than the “Eastern Scout.” Take that, East Coast bias!

Moving on, here’s the Playoff Tree, or at least the West side. This was back in the old three-division format where each Division Winner was ranked 1-3 and then the five best non-winners made it as Wild Cards. We lost the Pacific Division title to the Phoenix (not yet Arizona) Coyotes by one point :(

Here’s our stat line, in which Modano scored 108 points (a franchise record) and yet was only ninth in the league for scoring. Also notice how many of our players, including Jere Lehtinen and Marion Gaborik, have missed many games due to injury. I should probably prioritize my medical staff so they stop missing months due to a simple [Lower Body Injury].

Moving on, we beat the San Jose Sharks in seven games to advance to Round 2! That puts us ahead of our real-life counterparts, who lost in the first round to the Colorado Avalanche in five games.

Speaking of the Avalanche, they won their series over the Calgary Flames, and the Minnesota Wild upset the Detroit Red Wings. Which leaves us with...

...the St. Louis Blues.

Even in our fictional hockey universe, the Stars cannot avoid facing the Blues in the second round.

Then, as per league bylaws, we proceed to lose to the Blues in Game 7. Because we can’t be happy even in our make-believe fantasy world.

(Side note: I have no idea how they pick the teams for the “Team Spotlight.” I think the Flyers might have made the Eastern Conference Final, but the Flames got swept in Round 1...)

Once we get knocked out, the game automatically sims to the end of the playoffs. And against all odds, the St. Louis Blues have won their first Stanley Cup by defeating the Boston Bruins.

I swear I didn’t rig any of this. The game is not happy with me.

Not sure why this photo is of such poor quality — well, poorer quality — but at the end of every season, the game releases its final ranks of the teams’ GMs. The rankings are based on experience points, which are rewarded for free-agent signings, trades, wins, and how far you make it into the postseason.

Here’s a snapshot of what the rankings look like, where you can see I narrowly missed out on eighth place by a measly point. I think No. 1 was St. Louis followed by, I believe, Philadelphia, and then San Jose is up top at No. 3.

By far my favorite part about this screen is that the game generates names for the GMs, and it can come up with some pretty hilarious names. I mean Kaskamanidis? I’m sorry, I know that’s someone’s real last name, but I just can’t stop laughing.

Here’s a list of our impending Free Agents, who recently experienced their first of potentially multiple stat increases this offseason. Strangely, even though you can re-sign them before they get these increases (after the playoffs end, you have a single day to do so), it doesn’t actually affect their asking price.

It’s possible that they don’t actually increase their stats at this time and instead the game is resetting their stats to what they should be sans modifiers (or at least the negative ones), but I honestly have no idea. Maybe the players just have their price point and stick to it.

Since I didn’t show it last time, here’s the contract offer screen, where you can make unlimited offers to a player in a single day. Eventually they say yes and there isn’t any harm in trying to low-ball them, so the best strategy is to just repeatedly raising your offer by $0.1 million and then resubmitting, ensuring the lowest possible final value.

In this case, we signed Brenden Morrow to a six-year, $6.6 million contract. But to the disappointment of Satanists everywhere, this actually ends up being just five years at $6.6 million. That’s because the game doesn’t actually have a concept of contract extensions — instead, this being pre-lockout days, you just throw out the old contract and begin the new one.

In other words, the final year of Morrow’s $1.3 million deal gets replaced with the first year of his $6.6 million deal. As soon as July 1 hits and the new league year begins, it will advance to the second year of his contract, thus giving us only five years. You can avoid this by letting them hit Free Agency, but then the price typically increases and even without a salary cap, it’s important to try to minimize your player salaries.

Of course, as I’m typing all of this, I’ve come to the realization that the number provided isn’t the actual length of the contract, but rather how many years are left after the current one. So in reality, Morrow’s new contract is for a total of seven years, and will become six once July 1 hits. Guess the Devil’s in the details.

After re-signing other key players (such as Jere Lehtinen and Marty Turco) to long-term deals, we advanced through the offseason and have arrived at the NHL Draft.

Unfortunately for us, the draft is pretty much a crap-shoot. That’s because our Scouting Department is at the very worst level, which means our draft board looks like this:

On one hand, it’s another dash of realism in this game — if your scouts suck, your ability to judge prospects suck. But given that it’s so easy to trade for low-overall, high-potential players in this game, it’s hard to justify investing in scouting compared to pretty much every other category.

Luckily for us, the CPU did extremely well auto-selecting for us. Our first round pick was a defenseman named Vladimir Vostrak who is a 73 overall with an 86 potential. But the real gem was our second rounder, a defenseman named Oliver Aab (top of the screen in the above image) who is a 66 overall with a 99 potential.

See what I mean about scouting being a poor investment?

Here’s what Free Agency looks like come July 1. Nothing too special, but could be a lot worse.

Now, another shortcoming of this game is that, as we saw earlier, you can make an unlimited number of contract offers to a player in a single day. Which means we can literally sign any of these players before a single other team gets a chance to do so. That’s good for building a super team, but is a step back from the realism that this mode tends to excel at.

Of course, it could be a lot worse — we could have a free agency system so bad it’s virtually impossible to sign any player due to unrealistic bidding wars over them. I’m looking at you, NHL 2k8.

Finally, I’ve decided to reverse my previous decision and traded for Rick Nash after all, albeit a year later. This is because I saw that he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and I was immediately reminded that, as mentioned previously, the game tends to make terrible trades between it’s CPU teams. So I figured there was no reason to feel bad about stealing him for practically nothing (a.k.a. Teppo Numminen and a fourth-rounder).

I thought about liberating a young Jason Spezza from his new team, the New Jersey Devils, but then I remembered that the Devils were actually good while the Penguins sucked. Oh, how times change...

And that does it for Year 1. That took waaaay longer than I expected (once again, I’m sorry, Logan), but then again, what else are you going to do while social distancing? So no harm, no foul, I suppose.

Next week, we’ll actually dive into what most people (i.e. not me) care about in a hockey video game: the actual gameplay. See y’all then.