How many minutes do NHL players play?

An NHL game is 60 minutes long. There are more than five players on each team, so how does the coach split up the ice time between players? How long would a player play each night? Is there a difference between players?

When looking at how many minutes NHL players play, it is most helpful to look at them according to their position. On average, a defenseman will play 20:11 per game and a forward will play 15:37 per game. The amount each player plays each game varies, depending on a number of factors including their own skill level, overall team depth, and the coach’s decisions.

Embed from Getty Images

The biggest factor leading to ice-time is the position the player plays. If the player plays defence, on average they will play more time than a player who plays forward.  

The two main reasons that a defensemen plays more than a forward are:

  • There are simply more forwards dressed for each game than defensemen. Typically, for each game there are four lines of forwards (3 each = 12 total) and three pairs of defence (2 each = 6 total).
  • The forward position is a higher energy position that requires more skating and wears out the player more quickly. This is also why the coach will dress more forwards than defensemen each game.

Let’s look at each of the positions through the lens of ice time:

Average Ice Time for the Forward Position

A forward averages 15 minutes and 37 seconds per night. Last year in the NHL, Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers averaged the most ice time for any forward with 22:50. This includes the time he is on the ice for 5-on-5, power play and penalty kill time. Whereas, a forward on the lower end would play around the 11 minute range.

The 12 forwards on a team are divided up into 4 different lines. The best line on the team is called the 1st line, the second best the 2nd line, and then the 3rd line and 4th line. To get an average of how much each line plays, I divided up the top 400 forwards in the NHL into groups of four based on ice-time and took the average of each. I then applied the average ice teams to each of the lines.

Embed from Getty Images

Here is a breakdown of approximately how each much line plays per night:

Forward LineAverage Ice Time
1st Line19:20
2nd Line16:22
3rd Line13:28
4th Line12:35

The top forwards on each team will play on average 19:20 each night. It decreases from there as the players on the fourth line average around 12:35.

Average Ice Time for the Defence Position

The top defenseman in the NHL in terms of ice time in 2018-19 was the Minnesota Wild star Ryan Suter at 26:42. Compare this to the average of 20:11 for all NHL defensemen or the low end of the defensemen minutes of about 16.

There are a total of six defenders in a game and they are divided up into the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd pair. The 1st pairing gets the most minutes and plays against the other team’s top forwards, and often sees a lot of time on the team’s power play and penalty kill.

Embed from Getty Images

The third pairing gets the ‘easiest’ minutes and are usually sheltered from playing against the other team’s top forwards.

The breakdown of the average amount of ice-time each pairing gets is as follows:

Defence PairingAverage Ice Time
1st Pairing23:13
2nd Pairing20:00
3rd Pairing17:32

What other factors determine how much time a player gets per game?

  1. Individual Talent — Of course, the talent of the individual will determine whether or not they are on the first line, second line, 1st pair defence, 2nd pair defence etc. Simply put: the better you are, the more you will play.
  2. Talent of the rest of the team -— The talent of the rest of the team, or lack of, will determine how much your best players play. The coach often wants to keep the player averages in a reasonable range based on the line averages we looked at above.

Is it a coincidence that of the top 5 forwards (Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Patrick Kane, Aleksander Barkov, and Anze Kopitar) of average ice time per game were all on teams that missed the playoffs?

Embed from Getty Images

The coach does not necessarily want to play Connor McDavid 24 minutes per game (despite his immense talent), but is often forced to because the lack of depth at forward on the Oilers. A coach would much rather have depth through his lineup so he can play the top forwards a more manageable time in of 17-19 minutes. The NHL is a long, long season and it is advantageous to not wear your players out.

  1. Coach’s whims — The coach will definitely make in-game adjustments based on variables such as his feel on how well or how poorly a player is playing. It is not uncommon for a player to be benched or play less if he makes a number of poor plays. It is also not uncommon for a coach to play a player or line more if they are creating a number of scoring chances or have scored a few goals already.

As well, if the team falls behind in a game, most coaches will usually play their most offensive players more often to try and tie the game up. Conversely, if a team is ahead, they will give more time to their more defensive-minded players. Sometimes your best players are both your best offensive and defensive players!

Related Questions

What is the most minutes played by a player in a single regular season game?

The NHL has kept records on this since the 2005-2006 season and according to the NHL website, the most minutes played in one game was Dennis Wideman in 2013-2014 versus the Vancouver Canucks where he logged 38:05.

Although, it is claimed that Pavel Bure played 40:12 in a game versus San Jose on March 7th, 2001.

Leave a Reply

Related Articles
Hockey Answered Secondary Logo

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.

How can we help?