With college football and the NFL heating up, hockey is likely the farthest thing from your mind. But EA Sports just dropped the new edition of its “NHL” game.

Whether or not you’re in a hockey mood, this is perhaps the finest sports video game of the year. Unlike “Madden NFL” (yawn, roster update) and the so-far-shaky “NBA 2K21” (but much to be revealed come its next-gen release), “NHL 21” feels new and fresh. You get a unique gameplay experience that feels closer to real-life hockey than it ever has.

Understand this: This is not an easy year for sports games. The coronavirus pandemic shifted real sports schedules and offseasons, so games can’t rely on roster updates as a selling point. At the same time, innovation is predictably at its lowest moment with new consoles on the way. Traditionally, developers aim for beefy visual upgrades when a new console drops, and that seems to be the path most sports games will take.

Not so with “NHL,” which beefed up its on-ice gameplay while rethinking several classic modes. Artificial intelligence is always an adventure in sports games, but “NHL” finds unique balance, delivering smart goalies and responsive AI opponents.

It does this without cheapness, so you have to focus more intently on how you wield your offensive tools. Various control schemes are at your disposal, although the default controls are your best bet. They grant you access to the game’s essentials, and those essentials win in “NHL 21.” So get ready to cycle the puck and take smart shots, not a barrage of slapshots.

Be-a-player modes have found their sports gaming niche in recent years, but they’ve also become predictable. “NHL’s” Be a Pro steps things up with a series of new little additions. The coolest: You pick up “salary perks,” little additions that sometimes make sense (and sometimes don’t). Do you bring a lawyer into your payroll? Yes, it just might help your offense.

Franchise modes are among the deepest modes in all sports games, so it’s sad that they’ve gotten little attention in recent years. Still, “NHL” tries, delivering a unique experience with its trade deadline simulator, which has you making deals against the clock.