What is the Average Career Length of an NHL player?

Have you ever wondered how long a player plays in the NHL? We all know that it is difficult to get one game in that league, but once there how long do guys actually last?  

How many years does the average hockey player play? The average NHL player plays on average 4.5 years. However, when looking at the data in detail the top 25% of players played an average of 12 years, whereas the bottom 75% played an average of 2 years. 

Now there is a lot that goes into figuring out what the average length of a career is so let’s dig into the numbers. 

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The data and method used to reach the average length of an NHL career


In coming up with the average length of an NHL career there are a lot of variables and questions that come up:

  • Does a player count as playing in the NHL for 10 years if they play only one game each year?
  • How many games does a player need to play to consider playing in a year?
  • There is a big gap of games played between the top players and the guys on the bottom who only played one game – how do you account for that?

As some of these (and other) questions swirled around in my mind here is how I approached the question to get a (somewhat) accurate picture using the available data:

  • Data collected was based on the draft year of the player and was based on 10 years of the draft from 1998-2007
  • The majority of these drafts no longer have players playing in the NHL and are the closest dates to the current year 
  • The few drafts that do have current players only have a dozen at most and will not alter the collective in any meaningful way
  • The data only includes drafted players and not players signed as free agents – this would be more difficult to collect and the sample size of players was already deemed large enough
  • The data does not include goalies, because goalies play a significant amount of games less than skaters
  • A season is defined as 70 games, which accounts for injuries, healthy scratches, and being sent to the minors. Therefore, a player could have played 70 games over 5 seasons in actuality, but it will only count for 1 season in our analysis. As in most of life these things tend to even out and 70 seems to be a good bar to stick with. 

Now let’s look at the number (stats source: hockeydb)

Draft YearNumber of Players Who Played in NHLAverage Games/PlayerMedian Games/PlayerHighest Total Games Played by One PlayerTop 25% Players average/gameBottom 75% Players average/game
19981223361641212911148
1999982651321330771101
2000106298811264901116
20011083391981148876162
2002913522071240861136
20031193852421250970190
20041133102071158800150
20051003041421081819133
2006783411961074716156
200793301154983766156
Averages1023231721174839144

The first thing to look at is the average games a player has played in the NHL and it is 323 games or given our ‘70 game’ season that would work out to 4.5 seasons. Fairly simple, right?

Well, if you look at the median, which is the number directly in the middle of your sample – ie if you had 100 players to look at the median would be the 50th player – you get a different picture. When you look at the Median of the players throughout the years it is 172 games played or about 2.5 years.

When the median differs significantly from the average (172 to 323) you need to assume that the data is skewed in some direction – so we need to dig a little deeper. 

So what do we find when we dig a little deeper?

Well, looking at the raw numbers it was obvious that there were a few guys at the top who played a lot of games, and a bunch of guys at the bottom who had played, comparatively, only a few. 

I divided the groups into the top 25% of games played and the bottom 75% of games played. This highlighted a significant difference between the players at the top and the bottom of the league. 

The top 25% played on average 839 games or 12 years in the league, whereas the bottom 75 played an average of 144 games or 2 years in the league. This is quite the difference.

Furthermore, if you look at the numbers another way the top 25% of players in a draft year who end up playing in the NHL play 66% of the available games versus 33% for the other 75%


So, what can we say about the average length of an NHL career?


I think that it is okay to say that the average NHL player plays 4.5 years in the hockey.

I think that it is way more accurate to say the really good players play a lot, and everyone else gets a warm cup of coffee in the NHL. 

When you go back and look through the names in each of the seasons from the drafts that were used you will certainly recognize some of the names in the bottom 75%, but there are many more thoughts of ‘who is that?’.

When you look at the top 25% of players the first few players will stand out as all-stars, hall-of-famers, but after that you quickly get into players that we would probably label as average NHL players who would play 7 to 10 years in the league. 

So I think that the most accurate statement to make about how long a player plays in the NHL is: most of those who make it will play for a year or two, a regular player will play about 7 to 10 years, and the all-stars play for 12 to 15 years.


Conclusion


So we all knew that it was hard to make it to the NHL, but now we also know that once you get there it is also extremely hard to play a lot of games in the league. If you make it to the league you are more than likely to play less then 2 years.

Even if you play the average of 4.5 years that a player ‘typically’ gets you are doing above average.

This goes to highlight how impressive the level of play is for those players who manage to play in the league for any significant amount of time.

Really, anyone who plays 600 or 700 games plus has had a phenomenal hockey career.

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