What percentage of NHL draft picks make it to the NHL?

The NHL is the best hockey league in the world and only about 800 players play in it each year. It is a difficult league to play even one game in. 

So, just because you are drafted does not guarantee that you will play at all in the league. By being drafted the odds have increased, but there is still a long road ahead for the young players to make it to the NHL.

What percentage of players drafted make it to the NHL? On average 49% of players who are drafted by an NHL team will make it to the NHL, which means that they play at least one game at the NHL level. 

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Let’s dig into the above statement for us to get a better idea of how this plays out in the real lives of the NHL draftees trying to make the NHL.


What deems that a player has made it to the NHL? 


First we have to define what it means for a player to make the NHL. 

In our exercise here I am going to set the bar as low as it can go and define a player who has made the NHL as someone who has played at least 1 game.

It is extremely difficult to make the NHL and I think for the purposes of evaluating how many players make the NHL from the draft one game is a great number to evaluate it with. 

Every player who has played only one, two, or three games in the NHL would have liked to have played more, but they will all answer a proud yes (as they should) if someone asks them if they made the NHL.

Another question that could be asked is what is the average length of an NHL career? That is a different question and can be looked at more in depth in the link provided – as you will see most players play only a few seasons, whereas a few players have long careers. 

So now that we have defined a player as making the NHL who has played at least one game or more let’s look at the stats. 


What percentage of players from each NHL draft have made it to the  NHL? 


Here is a list of all the NHL Drafts from 2004 to 2020 and what percentage of players from those drafts have made the NHL:

Draft YearPercentage Played in NHL
200444
200548.2
200642.7
200745.9
200850.7
200955.2
201050.1
201159.2
201251.2
201348.8
201444.2
201546.9
201634.6
201726.7
201812
20195.5
20200.9

AVERAGE 2004 – 2014: 49.1%

As you can see that after the 2015 season (2016 and beyond) the percentage starts to drop into the 30s, because some of those young players are still in the minors trying to fight their way to the NHL and have not yet played their first game. 

Most, if not all, the players drafted prior to the 2014 draft have either made the NHL or they haven’t.

So in coming up with an average of how many players make the NHL I went conservative and chose the data from 2004 to 2014 – I believe this will give a good sample size to get a good picture. Now, there are still players who will still have not played their first game who were drafted in 2014, but the few that will are statistically irrelevant in such a large sample size.  

So from 2004 to 2014, 49.1% of players who were drafted played at least one game in the NHL.

Is that more or less than you thought? 

It was actually more than I thought it would be. I did not think that, basically, half of all players drafted would play at least one NHL game. 

Another thing that surprised me was that one of the years (2011) had 59% of the players drafted play at least one game. If you look at that draft there was not a bunch of high-end talent (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was drafted first overall), but it turned out there was a lot of great depth. 


When is it too late to expect to play in the NHL for a player? 


After every new draft it is common for about 5 or 6 players who are 18 years old to make the NHL. Usually the first two or three draft picks taken will make it and then a couple of more from the rest of the draft. 

It is hard to make the NHL as an 18 year old, and only the exceptional player will do so. 

Players taken in an NHL entry draft are typically 3 to 4 years out from playing there first game, and that is when the bulk of them will get their first taste of NHL action. This would put them at 21 to 22 years of age. 

Up until this point they will be continuing to develop their games at the junior levels and get their first taste of professional hockey at the minor league level or one of the European leagues. 

However, if they have not made the NHL within 5 or 6 years of their draft year the odds of playing a game in the NHL severely diminish. Not that it is impossible, but NHL teams do not have a lot of room on their rosters for players who are 25 and older and have not proven they can play in the NHL. 

By the age of 25, even at the NHL level, the common thought is the player has developed to the top of their ability and, at that point, you get what you get.

By this point a player who is in their mid-20s and has not played an NHL game will be have the minor league label firmly attached to them, and that is a hard label to get off once it has been put on. 

The one exception to this is for goalies. Goalies are known to take longer to develop since goaltending is the most difficult position to play. It is not uncommon for a goalie to take until their mid-20s to get established in the NHL.

So, if you are an NHL draftee and have not had a game in the NHL within 5 or 6 years of your draft year you likely will not get that chance. Most of them know this and will have either made their way to Europe to play in one of their leagues or have gone back to school or started out in a new career. 


What percentage of players make it from each round of the draft?


The NHL entry draft is divided into 7 rounds. Each team gets one choice per round (unless they have traded it away to another team). 

For most of our sample there were 30 drafts choices to make each round because Vegas and Seattle were not in the mix. 

So of the 30 players drafted in each round what percentage made the NHL?

RoundPercentage of Players to play an NHL Game
194%
270%
354%
444%
534%
631%
726%

As you would expect the earlier rounds had a higher percentage than the lower rounds. 

I was actually surprised that the first round was at 94% – I did not think it would be that high. I guess I am constantly underestimating the scouts. 

What the data shows is that the scouts and general managers know what they are doing when they are evaluating talent. There is a clear trend that each round becomes more difficult for a player to make the NHL than the round before it. 

However, what surprised me again was that 26% of players drafted in the 7th round actually played a game in the NHL. That is not particularly hight, but I thought it would have been actually much lower than this. I guess in my mind when looking at the player my team drafts there I give them a 0% chance.


Conclusion


So the next time you watch an NHL entry draft know that only about half of the kids being drafted will actually step onto the ice for an NHL team.

However, if you are only watching the first round of the draft you can be pretty sure that the player your team selects will at least get a cup of coffee at the top level, but for how long he stays on average in his career, well, that is another story altogether.

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