How the NHL entry draft works: A complete guide

Growing up, I have always been fascinated by the drafting of young players into professional sports leagues. I find the whole process of identifying, evaluating, and choosing which player to take captivating. Being a lifelong hockey fan, I am most intrigued about the NHL and how it drafts players.  

So how does the draft work in the NHL? The NHL entry draft is the process by which the NHL will allow teams to choose the rights to players within the 18- to 20-year old range. The players chosen will become part of the NHL franchise with exclusive rights to sign them to an NHL contract.  The entry draft is composed of 7 rounds of 31 choices per round and totals 217 players.

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Who can be selected in the draft?

All players who will 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.

The players are drafted from three major pools:

  1. Major junior hockey leagues in Canada and the USA: The Canadian Hockey League (CHL) in Canada – comprised of Western Hockey League (WHL), Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) – the United States Junior Hockey League (USHL) and Canadian provincial junior hockey leagues
  2. European junior and senior men’s hockey leagues
  3. NCAA teams

Players that are older than the 20 year old maximum can be signed as free agents to the team of their choice.

How do they determine the order in which teams choose?

The first round operates differently than rounds 2 through 7.  It is easier to explain rounds 2 through 7 before we get into round 1.

Round 2 through 7 are simply the reverse order of the team’s record in the league from the previous season. Therefore, if you had the worst record in the league you will get the first choice of Round 2 and if you had the best record you get the last choice. Rounds 3 through 7 follow the same pattern.

Round 1 is composed of a weighted-lottery for the 16 teams that did not make the playoffs, where the top 2 winners have the opportunity to move up a maximum of 10 spots. Therefore any team in the bottom 11 of the standings have a shot at winning the 1st overall pick.

The 12 teams that do not win the lottery are then slotted in order of their regular season record with the worst getting the 3rd overall choice and then so on. The 16 playoff teams are then placed based on a combination of their playoff performance and regular season record.

Here is an outline of the NHL Lottery:

1 All teams missing the playoffs are in a weighted-lottery

2 Teams with the least points get more chances at winning the lottery

3 Two teams will be selected through the lottery and will move up a maximum of 10 spots

4 Remaining lottery teams, sorted by team records with the worst record being first, fill out picks 3-16

5 Playoff teams that did not win their divisions and did not make the conference finals, sorted by points, are assigned the next picks

6 Playoff teams that won their divisions and did not make the conference finals, sorted by points, are assigned the next picks

7 Conference finals losers sorted by regular season points are assigned picks 29 and 30

8 Stanley Cup runner-up is assigned pick 31

9 Stanley Cup champion is assigned pick 32

What are the weighted lottery odds?

Each of the 16 teams missing the playoffs is assigned a percent chance of winning the lottery based on where they finished in the NHL regular season standings. The team that has the worst record will be given the best odds at 18.5%, the team with the second worst record will be given odds of 13.5% and so on until the team with the fifteenth overall record will be given the worst odds at just 1.0%.

1. 18.5%2. 13.5%3. 11.5%4. 9.5%5. 8.5%
6. 7.5%7. 6.5%8. 6.0%9. 4.5%10. 3.5%
11. 3.0%12. 2.5%13. 2.0%14. 1.5%15. 1.0%
16. 0.5

The lottery is conducted by a complex numbering system of lottery balls where each team is assigned a number of balls based on their percent chance of winning. Lottery balls are then chosen to determine the winner of the top three draft positions. Then, again, spots 4 through 15 are based on team records with worst being given the 4th spot.  

This system was developed to prevent teams from tanking. Or, in other words, to prevent teams and management from intentionally losing after they have been eliminated from the playoffs so they could guarantee themselves a top pick and the availability of the top player chosen.

There has been incidents of this happening, with the most famous being Pittsburgh losing the last game of the 1983-84 season so they would be guaranteed last overall and could choose the young sensation, Mario Lemieux, who would turn out to be a top 5 player of all-time.

Can teams trade their draft choices?

Yes, they can and this is very common. Every year the general managers use their draft picks and trade them to other teams to acquire current NHL roster players.

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A common time for trading draft picks for players is at the NHL trade deadline in March about six weeks before the playoffs begin. Teams who have a good opportunity to make the playoffs or win a Stanley Cup will often trade draft picks to teams who have a poor chance of making the playoffs in exchange for one of their roster players.

The best players at the trade deadline will often fetch first round picks, although these picks are typically in the latter part of the first round.

What happens if a drafted player does not get signed by their team?

A team is not obligated to sign a player that they draft. A player is not obligated to sign with a team that drafted them.

  • A team has two years to sign a player in the junior leagues or Europe to an Entry level contract
  • If a player is not signed after two years, they can go back into the draft if they are not too old.
  • A player who is not signed and too old for the draft becomes an unrestricted free agent and able to sign with any team of their choice
  • A team has the rights to an NCAA player until 30 days after they leave school
  • There have been a few NCAA players who have graduated after 4 years of hockey and then have waited out the 30 days to become unrestricted free agents who are able to sign with any team of their choosing.
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Strategy within the NHL draft  

  1. Do not draft a goalie too early. There are a few exceptions, notably Carey Price and Marc-Andre Fleury, but the common consensus is that goalies are just too risky to draft early. Despite the extreme importance of the position, it has been one that is difficult for scouts and managers to project the future impact of the player. It is most often the case that goaltenders simply take longer to develop than forwards and defensemen. With most goalies coming into the NHL in their mid-20s, the time horizon is too long to predict with clarity how a goalie will develop. With this being the case, the first goaltenders in the draft are usually not taken until the 2nd and 3rd rounds of the draft.
  2. Forwards are the easiest to project how their play will translate into at the NHL level. Given this and the importance of the centre position, the most coveted player in the entire draft is the prototypical big centre who can score and projects to play on the first line. General Managers fall all over themselves trying to get this player as it most easily translates into future wins for the team.
  3. Be careful of drafting Russians. The Russians have their own hockey league called the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). Young Russians will often start their career in the KHL making tax free money, and are not easily lured over to the NHL. Despite being such a large hockey playing country there are less Russians playing in the NHL than Swedish or Finnish players.

Chances of making the NHL for players drafted

So what are the chances of these players actually playing in the NHL (check this out if you want to see how long an average career is for those who do make it)? Well, there is an aspect of the draft that is part educated guess and part crap shoot. As imagined, the players picked at the top of the draft have a much better chance than the players at the bottom.

Here is a breakdown on the chances of a player from each round making it to the show:

Round 1: 66.7 percent of picks (120 of 180) played at least 100 games.

Round 2: 26.7 percent of picks (50 of 187) played at least 100 games.

Round 3: 17.2 percent of picks (31 of 180) played at least 100 games.

Round 4: 14.7 percent of picks (27 of 184) played at least 100 games.

Round 5: 8.6 percent of picks (16 of 187) played at least 100 games.

Round 6: 9.8 percent of picks (18 of 182) played at least 100 games.

Round 7: 7 percent of picks (13 of 186) played at least 100 games.

  • (based on research from Jamie Bisson)

Generally, all of the scouts and general managers give a very good estimate of who should be taken when.

Here is a list of the last 15 players taken first overall:

  1. Alex Ovechkin (2004)
  2. Sidney Crosby
  3. Erik Johnson
  4. Patrick Kane
  5. Steven Stamkos
  6. John Tavares
  7. Taylor Hall
  8. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
  9. Nail Yakupov
  10. Nathan MacKinnon
  11. Aaron Ekblad
  12. Connor McDavid
  13. Nico Hischier
  14. Rasmus Dahlin
  15. Jack Hughes
  16. Alexis Lafreniere (2020)
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These players are, for the most part, all-stars and superstars within the league. There is the odd miss (hello, Nail Yakupov 👋) but there is a consistency of getting it right near the top of the draft. As the draft moves to later picks, the chance of securing an NHL player gets more difficult.

However, that does not mean that there are not some gems later on in the draft. For example, the leading scorer in the 2018-29 season was Nikita Kucherov. Where was he drafted? 58th overall.

In that same draft, top ten scorer Johnny Gaudreau was drafted in the 4th round and 104th overall. Both will have more points than anyone else drafted in that draft class including first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers.

Not all draft classes are made equal. Some drafts are considered strong, while others are considered weak.

Consider the 2003 entry draft, which has been considered one of the deepest in history. Some of the players that came out of this class are: Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Ryan Kesler, Corey Perry, Dustin Brown, and Brent Seabrook.

Whereas the 2012 entry draft is considered one of the weakest draft classes ever. The top 5 picks were: Nail Yakupov, Ryan Murray, Alex Galchenyuk, Griffin Reinhart and Morgan Reilly. Only one of those players – Reilly – went onto have an above average NHL career. The rest of the draft is made up of mostly serviceable NHLers with few key players.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is the draft the only way to get into the NHL?

The draft is not the only one way to get into the NHL. An NHL team has the ability to sign players who do not have a contract with another team (this includes European teams) and are old enough as a free agent.

An undrafted player who is between the ages of 20-27 can sign a contract with a team, whose rights will stay with them until they reach 27.

Any player over the age of 27 is allowed to sign with any team, but once the contract ends they will again have the ability to sign with any team of their choosing.

Even with all of the scouts, managers and draft analysis there are still good players who go undrafted and manage to have amazing careers. A few notable players are: Martin St. Louis, Marc Giordano, Adam Oates, Curtis Joseph, and Artemi Panarin.

Do drafted players make money?

Just because you are drafted to the NHL does not mean that you receive any money.

Now, general managers will usually sign their top prospects to NHL entry level contracts where they will receive bonuses and a contract that pays them when they start playing games. However, for the longer shot prospects they will still need to show they deserve to earn an NHL contract in the development leagues — such as junior — they are playing in.

Most players drafted will end up going back to their amateur programs in junior or college, where they do not receive any money for playing. Depending on their development in those leagues, the managers will decide whether to sign them to an NHL contract, an AHL contract (their minor league and development team) or let them remain unsigned.

As well, even if they do sign them to an NHL contract, the player can still be assigned to the minors in the AHL where they will receive significantly less than they would if they played in the NHL.

So, being drafted is just the beginning with no assurances and still long odds at playing a number of meaningful NHL games and earning NHL money.  

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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!

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