How long do hockey players stay on the ice? A guide to shift lengths

Hockey is a highly intense sport often called the fastest game in the world. If you have ever watched or played in a hockey game you will know there is a lot of truth to it. Players are asked to go out onto the ice and play at an extremely aggressive and fast level of play.

So how long do shifts take for players in hockey? On average a player’s shift in hockey is 47 seconds on the ice. There are differences amongst defensemen and forwards, as a defensemen will take a slightly longer shift at avg. 48.6 seconds versus a forward who takes an avg. 46-second shift.

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The rule of thumb for shift length in hockey is to take shifts that are about 45 seconds. This will allow the player to be on the ice long enough to play at a high level without decreasing their level of play.


So, how well do players shift according to the 45 second rule of thumb?

To get a fair representation of data for players, I wanted to only pull the data from players who were actually regulars or somewhat regulars in the NHL. I was hoping to exclude the player who was called up as a band-aid solution, only playing a few games and in each only playing for 3 to 5 minutes. I want to know the shift length for the guys you could actually name on a team.

So here is my methodology for picking players whose ice time I’ve measured:

  • There are 31 teams
  • Each night they dress 18 players: 12 forwards and 6 defensemen
  • So there are 12 forwards X 31 teams = 372 forwards playing on a given week
  • There are 6 defensemen X 31 teams = 186 defensemen playing on a given week
  • Some players come in and out of the lineup, so I took the top 372 forwards and 186 defensemen who played a minimum of 41 games (half the schedule)
  • I pulled the stats from NHL.com for the 2018-2019 season

So the average shift length for all 558 players in the NHL is:

All Players47.07s



What is the shift length for forwards?

I wanted to look more closely at the data, so I separated all of the 372 forwards from the defensemen and found out the average for a forward was slightly less at 46.06 than the overall average.

From this point, I wanted to divide the data again to see the differences in ice time amongst the forwards. A team will divide the forwards into four distinct lines: 1st line, 2nd line, 3rd line and 4th line. The 1st line is where they put their best players and then down to the 4th line, where they place their not-as-skilled players*: the checkers, grinders, rookies, and journeyman. Was there a difference in how much ice time was allotted to each line? (*of course, by “not-as-skilled” players, I mean, they are still among the very few, elite, best hockey players in the world!)

No stats are kept on lines, only on players. So I divided the 372 forward players into 4 groups with 93 being in each group. I then took the average shift times for each group of forwards in the top 25%, the next 25%, and so on. This would mimic the NHL dividing their group of forwards into 4 groups. (Note: If you look at the actual names of who is in the top 93 forwards they are all the all-stars of the NHL, no 4th line-type players made it).

So what did the evidence show?

All Forwards46.06 sec
Top 25%51.19 sec
Next 25%46.96 sec
Next 25%44.52 sec
Lowest 25%41.59 sec

As the chart shows there is a fairly significant difference between the top players (51.19 sec) and the bottom players (41.59 sec) of almost 10 seconds per shift! What accounts for this?

  1. Natural Skill Level – the better players will simply be in control of the play more and this will lead to an increased time on ice
  2. Power Play – All of the top players are on the power play. A power play is 2 minutes long and is split between a first power play unit and a second power play unit. The first power play unit will typically stay out for longer than a minute increasing the average shift length.


Top 5 Forwards’ average shift lengths

Alex Ovechkin1:00
Patrick Kane:57
Evgeny Kuznetsov:57
Nikita Kucherov:56
Max Pacioretty:55

Whereas the bottom 5 from the 372 forwards:

38 seconds: Brandon Dubinsky, Barclay Goodrow, Andrew Cogliano, Matt Cullen, Jay Beagle

Again as you can see the top 5 are all all-stars who play on the power play, whereas the bottom 5 are 4th line players who do not get any power play time.

In conclusion, although the average shift for a forwards is 46 seconds it is clear that the better players take longer shifts than the not-so-skilled players.


How long are shifts for defensemen?


Similar to the forwards, I took the top defensemen who have played more than 41 games. However, unlike the forwards, the defensemen were divided into 3 groups of 62 players each. The reasoning behind this is that the defence is divided into three pairs versus four lines with the forwards. It makes more sense to look at the defence in groups of 3.

So what did the data tell us? The average defensemen plays an average of 48.6 seconds per shift and a top pairing defensemen will play 52.6 seconds per shift. This is more than the top forwards, which is understandable as a defence plays more minutes per game and a shift by a defensemen will usually require less skating than by a forward.

A bottom pairing defensemen will play 7.6 seconds less per shift than a top defensemen. Similarly this is the same as the forwards, where the better quality defensemen will play more on talent level and they are also on the power play units which have longer shifts.

All Defensemen48.60
Top 1/352.60
Middle 1/348.21
Last 1/345.00

If you look at the top and bottom defensemen of the 186 selected you will see the star defensemen are at the top and the 3rd pairing journeyman defensemen are at the bottom.


Top 5 Defensemen’s average shift lengths

Dustin Byfuglien1:02
Ryan Suter:59
John Carlson:59
Jacob Trouba:56
Erik Karlsson:56

Bottom 5 with 41 seconds per shift: Yannick Weber, Mark Pysyk, Scott Harrington, Marcus Pettersson, Jamie Oleksiak


How does special teams affect shift length time?


As indicated above, power play time increases shift length as players tend to take longer shifts when they are on the power play — especially the stars who go out first. They can easily be out on the power play for 70 to 80 seconds before they shift off.

However, a player who is killing a penalty will try to keep their shift length much shorter. They will try to keep a penalty killing shift to no longer than 30 seconds.

It is common to see during a power play opportunity the penalty killers shifting off around 30 seconds when they get a chance, and the first powerplay unit staying on to take another opportunity to score a goal.


Conclusion

47 seconds may seem like a short amount of time, but for players who are flat out in exertion and focus (essentially a sprint on ice), less than a minute is more than enough! Their sweat-dripping faces are evidence of that. 🙂

And if you are playing hockey yourself, you should take your cue from the pros and sub off more frequently than you think you need to… 1 minute shifts are only for the best of the best!

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