How many players are in the NHL?

The NHL is the top hockey league in the world. There are a lot of people who play hockey but, really, only a few get to play in the NHL ever year. The odds are not great. I have seen this firsthand with my nephew — he has played with friends who were drafted into the NHL, but he was not quite good enough to make it himself.

So how many lucky players get the chance to play in the NHL each year?

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How many players are in the NHL? The NHL had 903 players play one or more games in the 2018-19 season. Each team is to have a minimum of 20 players or maximum of 23 players at any one time on their roster. Therefore, over the 31 teams there are between 620 and 713 players in the NHL at one time.


Total number of players who played in the NHL

There were 903 players who played in the NHL 2018-19 season the breakdown was as follows:  

  • Goalies: 93
  • Defensemen: 282
  • Forwards: 528

Now all 903 players cannot be in the NHL at one time because the NHL has rules around roster size. Specifically, each team must carry a minimum of 20 players but no more than 23, this does not include players on the injured reserve. This will put the number of players playing in the NHL at any given time between 620 and 713.  

The one exception to this is after the trade deadline in late February/early March (with about one month in the season to go), where they get to expand the roster size — more on this below.

Let’s look at what factors contribute to the number of players playing at any given time.

The specific rules for roster size in the NHL are the following:

  • Minimum Roster Size: Each team must have a minimum of 20 players made up of 18 skaters and 2 goalies
  • Maximum Roster Size: Each team can have a maximum of 23 players on the roster. The team is allowed to any combination of skaters or goalies for their 3 extra players
  • Injured Reserve: If a player sustains an injury where they cannot play in games, the team has an option of putting them on injured reserve. If a player is on injured reserve they do not count against the roster limit, however a player must be on the injured reserve for at least 7 days.

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Common scenarios on how many players a team has at any one time

  • Most teams will carry between 22 or 23 players for the majority of the season
  • A team may wish to carry 22 players because the coach only wants to have one healthy scratch for a defenceman and forward on any given game night. This would breakdown to 13 forwards (where 12 would play the game), 7 defenceman (where 6 would play the game), and 2 goaltenders
  • It is uncommon for a team to only have 20 players on a roster but this does happen on occasion due to salary cap restrictions. A team is only allowed to have spend a certain amount of money on their roster of players, and if a player gets hurt and they do not want to put that player on injured reserve, they may not be able to call up another player from the minors because it will put them over the allotted salary cap
  • A team could be carrying 22 or 23 players with a number of other players being on the injured reserve list. Hockey is a tough sport and it is common to have injured players throughout the year. A team will usually have a few injured players that are around the team, who may even be practicing with them, who are not on the active roster. Once a player who has been on injured reserve is ready to play and comes off injured reserve the team must make sure there is room on the roster for the player. If the team has 23 players on the roster and needs to make room they can do this by either trading a player or sending them to the minors.


NHL trade deadline and the increase in roster size and number of players

After the NHL Trade deadline in early March, which is about a month before the end of the season, the 23 man roster limit is removed. However, an NHL team is allowed only 4 additional call-ups but they can call up players from affiliated teams after their regular season and playoffs is over. These leagues end their regular season at the same time as the NHL. Furthermore, a team can only have 50 active contracts throughout a season.

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With all this being said, teams are allowed to call up more players, although most teams will do this sparingly for two reasons:

  1. The coach usually does not want more than 23 players around. They are creatures of habit and do not want players who are not playing around. They are used to having 22 or 23 players around and that is they way they like to keep it. In addition, it becomes more difficult to practice with additional players.
  2. The salary cup does not allow a team to bring up additional players from the minors. A lot of teams are always very close to the upper limit of how much they can spend on players. Bringing up a number of additional players would put them over the limit so they are simply not allowed to do that.

The 23 player maximum for the roster returns once the new season begins in September. The players are then subject to a process called waivers


Stanley Cup Playoffs: The Black Aces

In the playoffs, the numbers of players around the team does swell. The salaries of the players in the playoffs do not count towards the salary cap and the players who have finished their minor league playoffs can now join the team.

This group of players that joins the big club for the playoffs are called the black aces.  These are players who are part of the organization, who have probably finished their minor league seasons and could play in the playoffs if needed, but who practice together and not with the rest of the team. The coach only wants the main players practicing together and looks for continuity in the way things have been done all year.


Conclusion


So there you have it – you now know how many players are in the NHL every year! Do you have what it takes to be one of the 900 or so for the next NHL season?

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