NHL roster size: How many players are on a hockey team?

There are only so many players that an NHL team can carry at one time. They are not allowed to have an unlimited number of players on their team or within the organization. So how many players are they allowed to carry on the roster?

Note: The rules for rosters were different for the 2020-21 COVID season, but they are now back to normal. At the end of the article will be an explanation of the changes that occurred for the rosters of the COVID season.

How many players are on an NHL team? For the majority of the regular season each NHL team must carry a minimum of 20 players and cannot exceed a maximum of 23 players. The number of roster spots expands after the NHL trade deadline and again in the playoffs, as well there are special emergency provisions for injuries.

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(I’ve put in some pictures of some NHL rosters winning the Stanley Cup throughout) Above photo: St. Louis Blues, 2019

The important categories and numbers to know about an NHL team and the roster of players they have within the organization are as follows:

  • 20 Players: the maximum number of players that can be dressed for each game
  • 23 Players: the maximum number of players on the roster for each team
  • 50 Players: the maximum number of players a team can have under contract in the whole organization
  • 90 players: the maximum number of players on it’s reserve list Source

Let’s look at the following categories starting with the roster.

Active Roster: How many players on a hockey team?

Each NHL team is allowed to carry a maximum of 23 players on their playing roster from the start of the NHL regular season until the NHL trade deadline which is in the first week of March. During this time each team must have a minimum of at least 20 players.

After that teams are allowed to have an unlimited active roster at the NHL level, provided players are signed to one of the team’s 50 contract slots.

Why wouldn’t a team want to have a 23 player roster?

Not all teams will carry the maximum roster of 23 players and choose to only have 22. Why is this?

The simplest answer: the salary cap. Each team has only a certain amount of money they can spend on their whole roster of players. For the 2021-22 season it is $81.5 million. That sounds like a lot of money for only 23 players but the players and agents are fantastic at negotiating their contracts so cumulatively they get up to that point quickly.

The teams manager is often left with a situation where they will only have 21 or 22 players on the roster so that they will not be as close to the salary cap. This creates a buffer for them so they have flexibility within their roster to be able to add more players in the future.  

The two main scenarios where they will add a future player from the minor leagues is in case of injury to one of the current roster players or a player via trade, which happens quite often at the NHL trade deadline.

NHL Rosters from the end of the trade deadline until the end of the season

From the end of the trade deadline until the end of the regular season there is no roster limit, however a team is only allowed to recall 4 players from their American Hockey league team. The team is allowed an unlimited number of emergency recalls if there are injuries on your current roster.

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Washington Capitals: 2018

A team would not call up all 4 players right after the trade deadline because the salary cap is still in effect and they can not push their cumulative salary above this threshold. And, the coach does not actually want that many players around the team.

Coaches and players are creatures of habit and they are used to 22 or 23 man rosters for games and practices, and they do not want to be thrown off of their normal rhythms and way of doing things.

Technically a team can still sign unrestricted free agents after the trade deadline and add them to the roster, although they are not allowed to play in the playoffs. The main two reasons this does not happen are the players available are not as talented as the players in the organization and, again, salary cap implications – the team does not have the necessary cap space to bring in even smaller contracts.

Gameday Roster: How many players can dress for one game?

Of the 20 to 23 players on the roster only 18 of those players will dress for the game.

The usual configuration of players dressed for the game will be 12 forwards, 6 defensemen and 2 goalies. There are times when the coach will dress only 11 forwards and go with 7 defensemen, but that will only happen a handful of times in a season if at all.

For the 2 goalies, it is most likely one of the goalies will play the entire game. The other goalie is considered a backup and is on the bench for the entire game.

The backup goalie will only come into the game, usually, for one of two reasons: 1. The starting goalie gets injured 2. The starting goalie has let in a number of goals and the coach wants to try the backup goalie.

How many healthy scratches can a team have?

The players who do not dress for the game are termed healthy scratches. The number of healthy scratches will be determined by the amount of players on the roster minus the number of players playing. Therefore it is usually 22 or 23 minus 20. That leaves 2 or 3 healthy scratches per game.

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Detroit Red Wings: 2008

When a player is healthy scratched, they will simply sit and watch the game from the stands while his teammates play. Of the players who are healthy scratched during the season it will typically fall on the same couple of players who end up sitting.

It happens quite often where a player only gets to play 20-30 games of the 82 games a team will play through the season. It is good for the team to have these players around in case of injury, but when the team is healthy they can end up sitting in the stands a lot!

Due to the constriction of the salary cap there have been times that a team has dressed less than 20 players for a game. For instance, a few of their players have got injured and they have not been able to increase their roster size due to the salary cap.

This is a noticeable disadvantage for a team as it requires all of the players on the shortened team to play more minutes than they are used too. Fortunately, this has never happened to a team for more than a game or two.

What is the injured reserve and how does it affect roster size?

When a player is injured management has a choice to make on whether or not to put him on the injured reserve. The injured reserve is a designation status for the player that is physically unable to play, but once on injured reserve they must be there for seven days.

Well on the injured reserve list the player is not eligible to play any games for their team.

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Pittsburgh Penguins 1992 Stanley Cup Champs with Mario Lemieux!

The advantage from a roster standpoint is that once on injured reserve the player no longer counts as a roster spot and the general manager can call up a player from one of the minor league teams. As well, the player on the injured reserve does not count against the salary cap.

A player can be on injured reserve for as short as 7 days or for as long as the entirety of the NHL season.

At anytime it is quite likely that a team will have at least one player on injured reserve – injuries are a natural course of the NHL season. It is actually the oddity if there are no players injured.

50 Players under contract: Minor league teams and the NHL team roster

Each NHL team has a minor league team that they use to train and develop players within their system. The players in the minor league system do not count against the NHL team roster count. Although they do count against the number of contracts a team is allowed to have, which is 50.

Throughout the year the general manager will call players up from the minor leagues and down from the NHL team based on performance and injuries. As stated before, they will always be aware of the salary cap implications and not exceeding the maximum salary cap number.  

How does the NHL roster change for the playoffs?

For the playoffs there is also not a roster limit. However, all the players that are part of the team have to be under one of the 50 contracts of the organization and their rights to the team have to belong to the team before the trade deadline.

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The 1989 Stanley Cup champions, the Calgary Flames!!!

The trade deadline is not an actual deadline where no teams can trade. Teams can still trade after the deadline but they cannot play the players in the playoffs that they acquired after the trade deadline. That is why it rarely happens – why acquire a player you cannot play in the playoffs?

So when the playoffs start the NHL team is allowed to bring in as many players it wants of the 50 players they have under contract with the team. Therefore, when the AHL minor league playoffs end they will often bring in a number of those players to be with the team, even in a non-playing role.

These players will be eligible to play but would not unless there was a rash of injuries to the big club. The players who are around the team in the playoffs but not playing are referred to as the black aces and will practice separately from the players who are in the games competing for the Stanley Cup.

What is the 90 player reserved list?

Each team has a reserved list of 90 players, which is essentially the total number of players that are attached to their organization.

The 90 players include all of the players that are on their roster, are under contract and in the minors, the players they have drafted and are playing in junior but have not signed, and players who are playing in Europe who they have rights too but have not signed.

An NHL team is not allowed to exceed the 90 player limit.

The Roster Rules for the 2020-21 season and the Taxi Squad.

Well, the rules for the NHL rosters for the NHL 2021 season were a little different. Thankfully we are not there anymore, but here is what happened for that odd season. They are basically the same except for one change – the taxi squad.

The NHL rosters stayed at a maximum of 23 players with all the implications of the salary cap.

The one thing that was different is that each team had a taxi squad of a minimum of 4 players to a maximum of 6 players. One of those players must be a goalie.

A taxi squad was with the NHL team, practice with the NHL, and travel with the NHL team but they did not count against the roster of the NHL team.

The best way to think about the taxi squad is to think it of a small division of your minor league club. All of the players on your taxi squad are under the same rules as the players in the minors.

Let’s give a few examples to make this clearer.

If a player is required to clear waivers like he would if he was on the minor league team then he will have to clear waivers if he is moved from the taxi squad to the NHL team.

An NHL team cannot bury a contract on the taxi squad. If a player is making 5 million dollars on the NHL team, he will count for the 5 million minus the 1 million dollar exemption for minor league players.

There will be much movement between the taxi squad and the NHL team in this season. It will be interesting to see who the teams put on the taxi squads. Do you put veterans on there who may end up practicing a lot, or do you put a young kid who is easy to move in and out without having to go through waivers.

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