Can you play in the NHL without being drafted? (and who they are)

The NHL draft is where all the top players in the come from, but is the only way that NHL players come into the league?

Can you play in the NHL without being drafted? Yes, you can play in the NHL without being drafted. Although it is not the common path, 14% of the players in the NHL have not been drafted, and have still found their way to the NHL. 

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Let’s take a closer look at the undrafted players in the NHL

What does it mean to be undrafted in the NHL? 

Every June the NHL holds its NHL entry draft (here is how the NHL entry draft works). The NHL entry draft is an opportunity for the NHL to select amateur players from the junior and college leagues and obtain their NHL rights, which they can maintain, if they want, for at least seven years. 

To be eligible for the NHL draft all players must be 18 years old on or before September 15 and not older than 20 years old before December 31 of the draft year are eligible for selection for that year’s NHL Entry Draft. In addition, non-North American players over the age of 20 are eligible.

Only 224 players are selected by the teams in the draft each year, which also means that a lot (the vast majority!) of amateurs in the eligible age range are not selected.

Therefore, when you age out of the eligibility requirements – ie. turn 20 – you will have officially gone undrafted. 

What happens to undrafted hockey players? 

While being drafted into the NHL is the most direct route, players who have gone undrafted still have plenty of options to play hockey, and a chance to make the NHL!

The most common place for players who are undrafted to play is the NCAA. The NCAA is actually mostly full of players who are 20 to 24 years of age, and have played their 18 and 19 old years in junior leagues in Canada and the USA. 

In addition, the junior leagues in Canada have a few spots on their teams for what they term overagers – players who are 20 years old. 

Or many players who are 20+ will try to get minor league contracts playing for the affiliate of NHL teams. NHL teams will have two minor league affiliates: an American Hockey League (AHL) Team and an East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) team.

The American League Hockey League Team is the better of the two, but both the AHL and ECHL teams are stocked with players that the NHL team has drafted and undrafted players that they have signed to minor league deals.  

There are also a handful of independent minor league teams throughout North America, as well as the professional leagues in Europe.

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Signing undrafted players to contracts

When a player is undrafted and doesn’t fit the requirements to be drafted they become an unrestricted free agent.

An unrestricted free agent is the hockey business term that means they are free to sign with any team of their choice. This is in contrast to a team who has drafted a player and now has the rights to the player, if they chose, for seven years. 

There are undrafted players in the NCAA, Europe and Canadian University Hockey every year who take their game to a new level, and teams in the NHL try to woo them to sign with them. 

Now, these are not the most intriguing prospects, but they are seen as having an outside chance of making the NHL. 

Often a handful of teams will be actively trying to sign them, and, in the end, they get to choose the team they think is the best fit.  Often these players will start their professional careers playing in the minor league systems. 

One last avenue the players have is that a few will be invited to tryouts with minor league teams during training camps in September. The scouts of the team will have followed the players for a number of years, and extend an olive branch to a player to see if they have the game to be part of the organization.

With a professional tryout it really is no loss for the team, because there is no money exchanged, and if they are not working out they can always be released. However, if they do like them they can always sign them to a minor league contract to play with the club. 

Whatever amount of money a player signs for, once the player signs with the team their rights will now belong to the NHL team for a maximum of seven years or to the age of 27, whichever comes first. 

How many undrafted players are in the NHL? 

The tweet above was sent out by Alan Walsh who is an NHL player agent. I appreciate the tweet as he was trying to encourage players that the NHL draft isn’t everything and not to let their hockey dreams be shattered – a lot of undrafted players still play in the NHL.

Undrafted players make up approximately 14% of the players in the NHL draft. 

This number was higher than I expected, but with only 224 players drafted and a massive amount of players undrafted it is rational to think there would be a sizeable number of undrafted players. 

For instance, there are only 32 players selected in round 3 so it doesn’t take that many undrafted players playing in the NHL to top the number of players who come out of round 3.

As well, the difference in players who are drafted in the 5th, 6th, or 7th round are really not that much better than a player who is undrafted. 

Whereas, there is often a large gap of skill between the players drafted in the first two rounds of the NHL draft and the players taking in the later rounds of the draft. 

What’s the difference between a player drafted in the 7th round, and someone who is playing in the NCAA? Not much. They are very close in skill level. 

This should give encouragement to those who are undrafted that they could be a late bloomer and still make the NHL.  

Players who have been undrafted 

Most players who have been undrafted and make the NHL are not household names, and will often only play a handful of games in the NHL.

However, there are some notable exceptions. Often you will have goalies – because they take longer to develop and it is hard to project how good a 17 year old goalie will become. However, there are a few All-Stars and Hall of Famers who were never drafted

Here is a list of notable undrafted players

Ed Belfour – Hall of Fame goalie with the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars

Sergei Brobovsky – Vezina winning goaltender, currently with the Florida Panthers

Dan Boyle – Stanley Cup winner with the Tampa Bay Lightning

Martin St. Louis – Stanley Cup winner with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Hart Trophy winner as league MVP

Dino Ciccarelli – scored 608 goals in the NHL

Mark Giordano – Norris Trophy winning defenceman for the Calgary Flames

Curtis Joseph – All-Star goaltender 

Joe Mullen – one of the best American goal scorers of all time

Chris Kunitz – won Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh and an Olympic Gold Medal with Canada

Artemi Panarin – Star forward for the New York Rangers

Wayne Gretzky – best player of all-time 

You may be surprised to see Wayne Gretzky’s name on the list – at least you should be. There is a great back story to why Wayne was never drafted. It was definitely not because he ‘slipped through the cracks’.

The dedication and perseverance of the undrafted player

The above list are the notables who made the NHL. Most undrafted NHL players will tend to be the fourth line players or the bottom pairing defence, the backup goalie. 

If you find out a player was undrafted and is playing in the NHL you should realize they have had to overcome a lot, and have had amazing dedication and perseverance to get to the point they are at. 

They have been told by the hockey establishment that they are not good enough for the show, but their love for the game, and work-ethic have overcome and given them a chance to play in the best league in the world. 

Let’s all raise our glasses to the undrafted player!

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Welcome to Hockey Answered: a resource for anyone curious to learn & understand more about the great game of hockey.

I am a lifelong fan who grew up in a major market (Calgary), and I have played, coached, and watched a lot of hockey!

As my daughter began watching NHL games with me, I realized how many questions come up about the sport. Hockey Answered is full of, well, answers! If you are a new fan or lifelong enthusiast, I hope that you can enjoy hockey even more by learning something new around here.

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