How do college hockey players get drafted to the NHL?

College hockey is wonderful to watch and involves a high-level of skill, but are they good enough to get drafted into the NHL?

Do college players get drafted to the NHL? Yes, college players get drafted to the NHL, however, most college players who have been drafted to the NHL have been drafted before they begin playing in the NCAA. Every year only a few players are drafted out of the NCAA, and a few sign as free agents after they finish their degrees. 

Let’s take a deeper dive into the rules and journeys of NCAA players and how they get to the NHL.

NCAA players are (usually) drafted to the NHL before coming to college

Most hockey players in the NCAA who are drafted to the NHL are drafted before they start playing NCAA hockey. This is opposite to what we expect based on how the NBA and NFL work, where players declare for a draft and sign a pro contract upon being drafted. 

What is the difference? 

The best place to start to understand the process is with the rules of the NHL draft. 

NHL Draft eligibility rules are as follows: All players who will be 18 years old on or before September 15 and not older than 19 years old before December 31 of the draft year are eligible for selection for that year’s NHL Entry Draft. 

Each year NHL team’s will select the best-of-the-best young players at it’s NHL entry draft (checkout my complete guide), many of which include future NCAA hockey players.

This means a few things for NCAA hockey and the NHL Draft. 

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First of all, most of the hockey players who start college hockey have turned 18 years old before their freshman year has begun, and, therefore, have already become eligible for the NHL draft which takes place every year at the end of June.

So, all of the really talented players who can be drafted will have been drafted before they ever play a single shift in the NCAA. 

Secondly, a player who has been drafted by an NHL team is not guaranteed a contract by that NHL team. The NHL team simply holds the rights to the player, and they can chose not to sign with them until at a later point. All of this allows them to be drafted, not sign a contract, and still be eligible to play in the NCAA. 

Thirdly, since most of the top prospects have already been drafted the players that do fit into the 18 year to 19 year old range and have not been drafted are, for the most part, a second tier of prospect. By all accounts they are excellent players, simply not top NHL prospects. 

Fourthly, the NCAA is not a league that is dominated by 18 and 19 year olds. It is a league that is dominated by 21 and 22 year olds.

The teams that are in and win the frozen four are older teams – ones with 21 and 22 year olds.

Even if a 18 year old top NHL prospect is on an NCAA team they are usually not the star player – that title will go to a 4-year NCAA veteran. 

Finally, a few players will get drafted from the NCAA to the NHL each draft, however, those players are usually the ones who start college when they are 17.

Owen Power and Matty Beniers, who were drafted 1st and 2nd overall in the 2021 NHL draft fit that description. Both were 17 when they entered college and did not have their 18th birthdays until November – missing the NHL cutoff by 2 months. 

Where do NCAA players come from? 

Most of the NCAA players will come out of the US High School hockey, US Junior Leagues, and Canadian Junior Leagues. 

The US has a great junior development league for players, essentially in high school, called the United States Hockey League (USHL). The USHL is made up of 16 teams located in the midwestern states. 

Some of the players that played in the USHL include: Jack Hughes, Jack Eichel, Quinn Hughes, Matthew Tkachuk, Trevor Zegras, Charlie McAvoy – and the all-star list goes on and on. 

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Some of those players who are drafted by the NHL go right to the show, but most will end up in the NCAA. We will get to more of that in a second. 

The other main source for the NCAA are the provincial junior leagues in Canada. 

These should not be confused with the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), which is the highest level of junior hockey in Canada. Most of the NHL stars from Canada will play in the CHL, and when you play in the CHL you are no longer eligible to play in the NCAA. 

However, there is a lot of hockey in Canada and each province will have their own junior B leagues, which players can use as a stepping stone to the NCAA. For instance, Alberta has the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL). Some top players still opt to play for their provincial leagues because they are closer to home, and want to try the NCAA route over the CHL path.  

Many of the players in the provincial junior leagues will play in them until they age out at 19 or 20 and then hope to get onto an NCAA team (Division 1, 2, or 3).  

Some top players who played in their local provincial league and went onto the NCAA include Jonathan Toews and Cale Makar.

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Do you have to declare for the NHL draft? 

No, you do not have to declare for the NHL draft if you are in the NCAA. 

As we have discussed most of the players who are drafted in the NCAA are drafted before they get to the NCAA. This does not make them ineligible to play, because they have not signed a pro-contract. 

And if you haven’t been drafted by the NHL and start playing in the NCAA you can still be drafted by an NHL team as long as you are not older than 19 years on December 31st in that draft year. 

The NHL works differently than what we see with the NFL or NBA. Players who are drafted out of the NBA or NFL immediately sign a pro-contract and begin their careers with their professional team. 

Within the NHL a player can play in the league at 18, but they rarely do. The NHL will draft players, and not sign them to pro contracts, but they retain the rights to the players four years if they go the NCAA route 

The NHL teams will then draft players on to their teams, not sign them, and then use the NCAA as a development league. And, it is a great development league. They often get their 18 and 19 year olds playing against 22 and 23 year olds, at a very high level of hockey. 

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Once the team believes their development has reached as high as it will go at the NCAA level they will attempt to sign them to a contract to play for their minor league club, or the NHL team itself. 

Once a player signs a contract with an NHL team they are no longer eligible to play for their NCAA team. Depending on the skill and development level this will happen at the end of the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd year of NCAA hockey. 

NCAA players signed as Free Agents coming out of college

A few players every year who have completed their NCAA careers and who have not been drafted end up signing with NHL teams as free agents. 

This means that an NCAA player has the ability to sign with whichever team they want, and can choose the situation that they think fits best. 

There are only ever 2-4 players that end up being able to go this route. Most of the players who graduated from the NCAA after four years are not skilled enough to play in the NHL. Some will go onto minor league teams around the country, but a couple do get NHL contracts. 

The hope and expectation from NHL teams is that these players could be serviceable NHL players who would be termed ‘role players’. Players at the bottom of the NHL roster who are inexpensive (by NHL standards) and are good defensively. 

One loophole to mention is that players who have been drafted by an NHL team and then complete 4 years of NCAA hockey also become free agents and are able to sign with any team they wish. The team who drafted them loses the control to the NHL rights of the player.

This does not happen often but you get the occasional player that goes this route. One example is Jimmy Vesey who was drafted by the Nashville Predators, but wanted to play for his favorite team as a boy: the New York Rangers. 

Vesey graduated from Harvard and was the Hobey Baker winner as the MVP of the NCAA. Nashville desperately wanted to sign him, but he chose to sign with the New York Rangers instead. 

Do you have to play college hockey before going to the NHL? 

No, you do not need to play college hockey before going to the NHL. As long as you are 18 you are allowed to play in the NHL. There is no rule like the NBA where you have to be a year out of high school before playing. 

With hockey only a few 18 year olds have the ability to play in the NHL. Most players do not get to the NHL until their early 20s so they end up developing in leagues such as the NCAA, Major Junior Hockey in Canada, men’s leagues in Europe, or NHL minor league teams. 

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The NCAA has become a major development route for players to take on their way to the NHL. 33% of players in the NHL have spent time in the NCAA. This may seem low compared to something like the NFL, where practically every player plays in the NCAA. However, the NHL is an international sport with many great development leagues in Canada and Europe. 

So 33% is quite a high number of players, and way higher than it was even a decade or two ago when it was 20% source

Can NHL players play in college? 

NHL players can not play in college. Once they have signed a contract with an NHL team they are no longer eligible to play in the NCAA. However, players who have been drafted by an NHL team, but have not signed a contract can still play. 

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