The NHL is an elite club and it’s a significant achievement to even get drafted by a team — but it’s a whole other story to end up playing in your first NHL game. Even a first-round draft pick has no guarantee that they’ll ever play a single game in the National Hockey League.
On average, 49% of players who are drafted by the NHL will “make it” to the NHL — meaning they play in at least one game. When considered by themselves, first-round draft picks have a nearly 90% chance of playing in the NHL at some point. Draftees often have a few years left of player development from the time that they’re drafted to the time that they’re able to prove themselves in the big league.
Breakdown of Percentages By NHL Draft Round
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a first-round draft pick is more likely to “make it” in the NHL than a sixth or seventh-round pick. The first-round draftees have often showed the most raw talent and NHL-level potential — which is why they’re the first choices of the hockey clubs.
Over 200 players are selected each year during the entry Draft and the likelihood of becoming an actual NHL player sees a steep decline between the #1 overall pick and the very last draft. However, it’s an impressive milestone to even be drafted, and it’s something players can forever be proud of.
The Percentages by Draft Round (on average):
|Round||Percentage of Players to play an NHL|
There’s nearly a 70% difference between the seventh and first-round picks! That’s not to say that there can’t be some depth found in the final round picks, but it’s significantly less likely that you’ll see a player with star potential coming out of that round.
After the third round, the percentage drops to below 50% and you’re likely to see players that need more time to develop and who have the potential to add some depth to an NHL team later on, but they’re not likely to be the next NHL all-star players.
Number 1 Overall Draft Picks
When looking at the players who have been the first overall draft picks from a particular year, you’ll find many familiar names such as Marc-Andre Fleury, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, John Tavares, Connor McDavid, and Auston Matthews.
These players have made quite the name for themselves during their ongoing playing careers and some of those names are likely to end up on a Hall of Fame list one day.
Since the modern-day NHL draft began in 1979 — only 21 players have retired and of those 21, the average playing career was 14.5 seasons.
When you consider that the average playing career of an NHL player is somewhere around the five-year mark — fourteen to fifteen years is an impressive achievement.
These draft picks were significantly more likely than their counterparts to make it into the NHL and then go on to have very long and successful playing careers.
Percentages by NHL Draft Class
|Draft Year||Percentage Played in NHL|
From the 2011 NHL draft class, nearly 60% of draftees have played in the NHL at one point or another. Compare that to a recent class of 2019 where only 5.5% of draftees have played in their first NHL game.
This makes sense of course, as the 2019 players haven’t had the extra development time and it’s very likely that this percentage will increase over the years as more of the players move up from the minor leagues.
It’s not very common for a fresh draft pick to go straight to the big club as an 18-year-old. For the exceptional young talent, it’s possible. Typically, players will wait 3-4 years after being drafted to get their first shot at the big game. During these years, players will develop their game and develop as a player in the junior leagues.
When is it Too Late for an NHL Draft Pick?
At around the 5-6 year mark, if a player hasn’t made it to the NHL for any period of time, they’re unlikely to do so in the future. It’s commonly understood that a player should be in their prime playing ability at the age of 25 — so if they’re still stuck in the junior leagues at this point, that’s likely where they’ll be staying.
Goaltenders are the outliers — as it’s not uncommon for them to start finding their stride in their mid-20s. Goalies have a longer development period and they tend to retire later in their life when compared to their position player teammates.
Most NHL draftees are in the 18-20-year-old range (players over 20 years old who are not from North America can be eligible). These are young guys who have plenty of time to hone their skills and prove their worth to an NHL team.
These players are often coming out of college or a junior program and will benefit from the practice with the NHL club, as it helps them to learn from the professionals and hopefully increase their odds of making it one day.
What Does “Making It” to the NHL Look Like?
When a player skates in their first NHL game, they can be considered an NHL player. It doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily have a professional career that spans several seasons, but they’ve at least played in the NHL and that’s an achievement that they’ll be able to brag about for the rest of their lives.
Draft picks tend to be teenagers still and they often have a long way to go in order to reach their full potential and skill level. With the help of an experienced coaching and training staff, it’s every draftee’s dream that they can prove their worth and eventually get called up by the league.
At the end of the day, less than half of the overall draft picks will ever get to realize this dream — as is the nature of playing in a professional sports league.