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

Posted on February 24, 2024 by Dan Kent
nhl draft

For the most part, every major sports league is going to have an entry draft for the up-and-coming prospects in the league. However, each pro sports league does it a little differently. In this article, we'll look at how the National Hockey League runs their draft.

What is the NHL Entry Draft?

The NHL Entry Draft is a crucial event in the world of professional hockey, where franchises from the National Hockey League (NHL) select eligible players, typically within the age range of 18 to 20. 

The main purpose of this annual event is to provide clubs with the opportunity to replenish their rosters with up-and-coming talent from amateur leagues worldwide.

Consisting of seven rounds, with 32 choices per round, a total of 224 players get selected by the teams during the draft.

The predetermined order in which the clubs choose varies each year, considering factors such as team performance and lottery results. I'll get to more of that in a bit, though.

Once a player is chosen during the NHL Entry Draft, the corresponding franchise acquires exclusive rights to negotiate and sign a contract with them.

Who can be selected in the draft?

Players must meet certain requirements to be eligible for selection in the NHL Draft. These requirements include:

  • Age range: Players must be within the 18- to 20-year-old age bracket at the draft time. This ensures that teams select young talent with potential for growth and development in the coming years. However, any non-North American player can be selected as long as they are 18 by September 15th
  • Nationality: There are no restrictions on nationality, allowing teams to select the best talent from around the world. Russia is a popular, yet highly risky area for NHL teams to draft from. Whereas junior hockey leagues like the Western Hockey League (WHL), Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), and US college leagues are often the most popular.
  • Player status: Eligible players must not have already been signed by an NHL team or played in a professional league that would render them ineligible according to NHL rules. This ensures that teams are selecting from a pool of new talent.

Being selected in the NHL Draft does not guarantee a player a spot on the team's roster. Still, it does allow young talent to showcase their abilities and potentially earn a position on the team in the future. The draft process plays a crucial role in the continued growth and competitiveness of the NHL and its franchises.

How is the selection order determined for the teams?

In the NHL Draft, the order in which teams pick is determined by considering their performance during the previous season. A weighted lottery system is in place to establish the selection process. Let us break down the key components that influence this order:

  • Rounds 2 to 7: These rounds follow a straightforward process, a combination of where non-playoff teams finished regarding the standings and what round playoff teams exited. For example, even if a team finishes 10th in the league but wins the Stanley Cup, they will be selected last in each round.
  • Round 1: The first round involves a more complex mechanism.

    • The Draft Lottery: For the initial picks, a lottery system is in play for the bottom 16 teams, granting each of them varied odds at securing the first or second overall selections. The remaining teams follow the same reverse order format as rounds 2 through 7.
    • Lottery Odds: The odds of winning the lottery for the first overall pick are dependent on the regular season performance of each team. Teams with poorer records have higher odds, while teams with better records have lower chances of securing top picks.

Overall, the later picks in the entry draft are primarily determined by where a team finishes in the playoffs. In contrast, the lottery determines the earlier picks that the league runs to prevent tanking.

Understanding how the NHL lottery works

The NHL Draft Lottery employs a weighted lottery system to determine the order in which non-playoff teams will select players. Teams with worse records receive higher odds of securing a top pick, while those with better records have lower chances. The 11 worst teams in the playoffs are eligible for the draft lottery.

This system promotes competitive balance in the league by offering struggling teams a better opportunity to acquire talented players.

In the lottery, the odds percentages are assigned as follows:

  • The team with the worst record has a 25.5% chance of winning the first-overall pick
  • The second-worst team has a 13.5% probability
  • The third-worst team gets an 11.5% chance
  • Subsequent teams receive progressively lower odds, down to the best non-playoff team

These chances are then used to select the top three draft positions randomly. After the top three picks are assigned, the remaining teams are placed in the draft order based on their regular-season records, with the lowest-ranked team getting the highest remaining pick.

The complete draft order is thereby determined, with all teams making their selections in a predetermined sequence.

This process allows teams at the bottom of the standings to access top talent earlier in the draft, providing them with an opportunity to strengthen their rosters and increase their chances of success in the future. 

But there is also an added element of luck, which prevents teams from outright tanking to get draft choices. Even the worst team in the league has a less than 20% chance of securing the first pick in the draft. I enjoy this, as I believe it makes the league more competitive.

Can teams trade draft picks?

Indeed, teams participating in the NHL draft can trade their draft selections. This is a common strategy organizations use to acquire desired players, improve roster positions, or gain additional future picks.

For example, a team that is contending for the Stanley Cup may decide to trade away their first-round pick to acquire a player that can help them win now. 

The team acquiring that draft pick would draft and develop the player in hopes they become impactful down the line.

When trading draft picks, teams often consider various aspects, such as:

  • Team needs: They may trade draft choices to address specific roster gaps or acquire desired positions.
  • Draft depth: In a year with abundant talent in specific positions, teams may feel comfortable trading draft choices to strengthen other areas or gain more picks in future drafts.
  • Player development: A team may opt to trade a higher draft pick in exchange for a developed player who is ready to contribute immediately.

Additionally, it is essential to note that draft picks can be traded both before and during the NHL Entry Draft. Such trades may involve exchanging picks for players, other draft choices, or a combination.

You'll often see a lot of draft picks being moved at the trade deadline, often to teams that are "selling" off assets in expectations that they'll miss the playoffs.

What if a prospect doesn’t sign with a team?

The ultimate goal of the draft is to select players from various leagues with the hope of signing them and integrating them into their system. Sometimes, a drafted player is not signed by the team that selected them.

In such instances, specific rules and outcomes apply, depending on the player's eligibility status and their choice of playing in collegiate-level hockey or other leagues.

Suppose a player in the Canadian major-junior league is not signed within two years by their drafting NHL team. In that case, they become eligible to re-enter the draft if they're 20 or younger. However, if a player has been drafted twice and remains unsigned, they can become an unrestricted free agent.

For players who opted to play at the collegiate level, the NHL team that drafted them has 30 days to sign them after the player departs from college. Suppose the team fails to sign the player within this timeframe. In that case, their draft rights expire, and the player becomes an unrestricted free agent.

As an Edmonton Oiler fan, I can think of two instances where this has worked in the teams benefit and detriment. The benefit was the signing of Justin Schultz, who refused to sign with the Anaheim Ducks, and the second being forced to trade John Marino to the Pittsburgh Penguins when he refused to sign with the Oilers. 

Team strategy when it comes to the NHL Entry Draft

Teams employ various strategies in selecting the best players to add to their rosters.

Firstly, teams tend to capitalize on their scouting networks. Scouts work diligently to evaluate and rank prospects on skill, potential, physical traits, and character. The knowledge acquired by scouts is crucial in helping teams make informed decisions during the draft.

Many teams may draft based on their overall team strategy. A team who plays a slower, heavy forechecking game may decide to draft for size, whereas a team who plays a speed, rush style game may draft smaller, quicker players.

Another significant aspect of the draft strategy is balancing between acquiring talent that can contribute immediately and players who may require more development time. Teams may opt for a "best player available" approach, selecting the highest-rated prospect regardless of position or need. Alternatively, they may prioritize filling a specific position of organizational weakness.

You'll often see teams take a best player available approach in the starting rounds of the draft and start to pick more for positional need in the later rounds.

Moreover, managing draft picks is vital for teams. This involves trading up or down in the draft order, allowing them to position themselves better to acquire desired players or accumulate multiple picks. Such moves can optimize a team's ability to secure top talent and enhance long-term competitiveness.

Lastly, teams often factor in the international talent pool, scouting players from various countries and leagues to ensure they don't miss out on potential hidden gems. Balancing local and international prospects enables organizations to build more diverse and dynamic rosters.

NHL teams spend a ton of money scouting European and Russian leagues, for good reason. Some of the best players on the planet come from there.

When we look at Russian and European players, like those from Sweden, Czechia, Finland, Slovakia, and Switzerland, they make up a decent sized portion of the league.

What are the odds a prospect makes it to the NHL?

The higher you're drafted, the higher your likelihood of carving out a successful career. But you still have a slim chance of playing over 100 NHL games, even if you're picked in the first round.

According to Dobber Hockey, a first-round pick has a 37.3% chance of playing over 100 NHL games. A 7th round pick? Just 5.5%.

First overall picks since 2008

  • 2008: Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
  • 2009: John Tavares, New York Islanders
  • 2010: Taylor Hall, Edmonton Oilers
  • 2011: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers
  • 2012: Nail Yakupov, Edmonton Oilers
  • 2013: Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
  • 2014: Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers
  • 2015: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
  • 2016: Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
  • 2017: Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils
  • 2018: Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres
  • 2019: Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils
  • 2020: Alexis Lafrenière, New York Rangers
  • 2021: Owen Power, Buffalo Sabres
  • 2022: Juraj Slafkovksy, Montreal Canadiens
  • 2023: Connor Bedard, Chicago Blackhawks

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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