What is the NHL Hockey Draft? How Does It Work?

Posted on March 20, 2020 by Dan Kent
nhl draft

If you follow NHL hockey, you’ll notice that rookies and new young players regularly enter the league. The NHL and its teams add these young players every season in the NHL Entry Draft. But what is the hockey draft? How does it work, and how is the draft order determined? How often and where is it held? This comprehensive article will break down every step of how the NHL Draft operates.

The hockey draft, officially known as the NHL Entry Draft, is an annual meeting where NHL teams acquire the rights to hockey players who are newly of age for professional hockey. Players must be at least 18-years-old to qualify for the draft. Every NHL team receives one pick in each of the draft’s seven rounds. The draft order is determined by a lottery draw, which is influenced by the league’s regular-season and playoff standings from the season before the draft.

What Is the NHL Entry Draft?

The NHL Entry Draft is the annual addition of new young players to NHL teams. Each year, the NHL’s teams meet on draft day to acquire rights to the new players.

Players become draft-eligible once they turn 18-years-old. North American players must also be no older than 20-years-of-age to qualify for the draft, while European players can be up to 21-years-of-age.

When a player is drafted by a team, that team has exclusive rights to sign the player for two years.

The draft currently features seven rounds, in which each of the league’s teams selects one player per round. As of 2020, the league has 31 teams, so 217 players get drafted each season.

The draft is always held in late June, which is after the Stanley Cup Playoffs have ended. This particular date was chosen because the outcome of the NHL playoffs impacts the draft order.

The draft order is partially determined by a lottery draw. The 15 teams that miss the playoffs receive lottery balls, with the lowest finishing team receiving the most balls for the draw.

The random lottery draw then determines the selection order for the first 15 teams in the draft. The remaining 16 teams that do make the playoffs have their draft order determined by the results of the playoffs.

Playoff teams are set in the draft by the reverse order of their elimination. This means that the Stanley Cup-winner picks 31st in the draft, the runner up picks 30th, and so on down to the 16th pick.

The draft order of the 31 teams repeats itself as the draft goes through its seven rounds.

hockey player

When and Where Is the NHL Entry Draft Day?

The NHL Entry Draft always takes place in late June.

The draft itself began in 1963, and it was held in Montreal, Quebec, for the first 22 years. After that, it began to shuffle to a new NHL team’s home arena every year.

The most recent NHL draft was held at Rogers Arena, home of the Vancouver Canucks, in 2019. The 2020 draft will return to the draft’s inception location of Montreal, whose Canadiens now play at the Bell Centre.

The draft typically occurs with the seven rounds divided over two days. Draft-eligible hopefuls will attend the event at the arena, where NHL team organizations send a management team to make the draft picks.

On the draft floor, teams each set up a table, usually featuring their general manager, scouts, and other advisory staff. When a team is up to pick, this group has three minutes to make their selection.

The team’s draft-day group heads to the draft stage, where they announce the player they’ve selected.

The player then goes from the crowd to the stage, where they’re met with a draft hat and jersey. They briefly greet their new team’s management and pose for draft day photographs.

How Do Players Get Drafted?

Many young players aspire to make their career in professional hockey. But only the very best get drafted to the NHL.

The most skilled youth players move toward professional hockey by playing in major junior leagues. These are leagues for players between the ages of 15 and 20.

In North America, major junior leagues include the WHL, OHL, and QMJHL. The majority of NHL draft picks come from these leagues, though Hockey Canada and USA Hockey do also train players who get drafted.

The OHL (Ontario Hockey League) and QMJHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) feature exclusively Canadian teams, while the WHL (Western Hockey League) has several teams based in the United States. In Europe, the system works differently.

The most skilled European players will usually join European professional league teams when they reach their mid-teens.

washington hockey team

Some European players will also move to North America while in their teenage years to best assure a chance at getting drafted by an NHL team. These players can join the North American major junior leagues, which also have drafts of their own.

How Are Draft-Eligible Players Scouted?

NHL organizations employ teams of professional scouts who evaluate draft-eligible prospects. These scouts will attend the games of junior teams, which are primarily comprised of NHL draft hopefuls.

NHL scouts also visit European leagues to judge their young talents who submit for the NHL draft. But these European players are sometimes lesser-known because of their distance from North America, leading them to fall in the draft.

Russian draft prospects are also viewed as risky picks, because they sometimes are inclined to stay home and play in Russia’s professional league, the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).

Europe’s top hockey countries are Sweden, Russia, Finland, and the Czech Republic. But countries such as Germany and Switzerland do also contribute NHL draftees.

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) also holds its annual World Junior Hockey Championship (WJHC) for players under 21-years-of-age. The tournament sees countries compete against one another for medals with their young hockey players.

The WJHC is another important showcase for draft hopefuls, especially European ones. At the tournament, European players can show how they match up against North America’s best junior players.

North American players do get the most press for NHL teams – which are all in Canada and the US, of course – but teams recognize the importance of scouting European players too. Europeans are regularly drafted just as highly as North Americans.

hockey goal attempt

NHL broadcast television networks also provide scouting coverage of draft prospects. There are always reputable lists of draft rankings in advance of the NHL Entry Draft.

The final chance for players to impress NHL teams is at the NHL Draft Combine. At the event, draft prospects are invited to interview with and workout for NHL teams shortly before draft day.

What Happens After Players Are Drafted?

After players are drafted, a few different options present themselves.

Players typically sign an entry-level contract – usually for two or three years – which expects to see the player develop into a professional. This contract is a “two-way” deal, meaning that the NHL team can employ the player at the professional level or in the minor leagues.

On a two-way contract, a different salary is guaranteed for the player at the NHL level and at the minor league level.

Depending on the skill level of the player, some new draft picks can make the jump to the NHL at age 18. This isn’t all that common, however.

Maybe a dozen or so draft picks per season make their NHL debut in their draft year. Virtually no players who are drafted after the first round make it to the NHL in their first season.

But most new draft picks will develop at the minor league level – and this is the general expectation.

Drafted players can even return to their major junior team for a season or two if their NHL team views that as the best option for their development. Junior teams can have players who are up to 20-years-of-age.

It is also nearly unheard of for goalies to debut in the NHL in their draft year. Goalies typically take longer to adapt their game to the professional level, so they require years of development in their team’s minor-league organizations.

goal attempt

Another option that draftees pursue is to go to college despite being drafted to the NHL. These players get an education while playing in the NCAA’s hockey league.

NHL teams lose the rights to a drafted player 30 days after they finish their NCAA education. This means that college players sometimes choose to sign with a different team after completing their collegiate education and hockey career.

Alternatively, there are players who don’t get drafted. They can resubmit to the draft until they are 20-years-old (for North Americans) and 21-years-old (for Europeans).

Usually, there are at least a few undrafted players who develop into standout NCAA players. NHL teams then compete with one another to sign these players when they finish their education.

Undrafted players can also try to work their way up to the NHL by playing in other professional leagues. The NHL pays players millions of dollars per season, but other leagues in North America and Europe do offer a living wage to their players.

Many undrafted players have also gone on to have successful NHL careers. Once they are beyond the age of 21, undrafted players qualify as unrestricted free agents, not RFAs, who are then free to sign with any NHL team (if a team wants to sign them, that is).

One example is Calgary Flames defenseman and team captain Mark Giordano. A former undrafted player, Giordano has had a successful career, which included a win of the Norris Trophy for the NHL’s best defenseman in the 2018-19 season.

Can NHL Draft Picks Be Traded?

Teams can and often do trade their draft picks. Draft picks are highly valued trade pieces, because they add prospects to a team’s future roster.

Dominant and established teams will usually be more willing to trade draft picks, while weaker and rebuilding teams look to stockpile draft picks.


First-round draft picks are especially valuable. The players picked in the first round are the most skilled and most likely to contribute at the NHL level.

Players do still end up making it to the NHL when they are drafted after the first round. But the odds of making it as a later-round pick decrease as the rounds go on.

But even first-round picks – and first-overall picks – are not guaranteed to have success in the NHL. That’s why it’s important for NHL organizations to have trustworthy scouting and a proper development program in place.

Draft picks are regularly traded on draft day, too.

Teams will sometimes wait until their draft pick is on the clock to announce a trade. Teams may want to trade up or down in the draft, but they won’t know the exact situation until it is their turn to pick.

For example, teams may want to trade up in the draft to pick a certain player, or move down and gain assets if they’re interested in a lower-ranked player.

How Is Draft Order Determined If There’s a Lockout?

When a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the NHL Players’ Association and the league’s owners isn’t agreed on before a season begins, the NHL doesn’t play its season.

The league most recently lost half of the 2012-13 season to a lockout.

The entire 2004-05 season was also lost to a lockout. This year coincidentally fell when an extremely highly touted prospect named Sidney Crosby was projected to be the first-overall pick.

nhl draft

But for the 2005 draft, there was no previous season with standings to determine the lottery draw. So it was decided that every team would enter the draw with an equal chance at winning the top pick.

The Pittsburgh Penguins ended up receiving the top pick, when it came down to them and the Anaheim Ducks. Pittsburgh selected Crosby first overall.

Crosby, of course, went on to become the face of the NHL and is just beginning the latter half of his career – which is already ranked among the all-time greats.

Fans, players, and the league’s ownership group always hope to avoid lockouts. But in the event of a full season lockout, every team gets an equal chance in the draft lottery draw.

The NHL Entry Draft is an important part of the sport. And its only growing more significant today, as younger players are making the jump to the NHL faster than ever before. NHL teams take seriously their preparation and scouting for the draft, where they annually add a new generation of 18- to 21-year-old players for their organizations. These players come from all over the world to try to fulfill their dreams of playing professional hockey in the world’s best league: the NHL.

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

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