When discussing the NHL, a common question among newer fans is the number of players in the league. Hockey enthusiasts and those new to the sport may wonder about the size of each team's roster and the number of players in the NHL.
This may come from fans of the NFL or NBA, who carry much bigger/smaller rosters than the National Hockey League and wonder why it's different.
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How many players are in the NHL?
In calculating the number of players in the NHL, one must multiply the number of teams by the number of roster spots per team. Considering 32 teams with 23 active players each, the NHL features approximately 736 players at any given time.
However, it's important to note that additional players may be involved in the league throughout the season as new talent is drafted, roster adjustments are made, or injuries require temporary replacements.
The NHL comprises 32 teams in North America, of which 25 are based in the United States and 7 in Canada. Each team maintains an active roster of 23 players, consisting of skaters (forwards and defensemen) and goaltenders.
This roster size remains relatively consistent throughout the season. However, fluctuations may occur in instances such as injury or player suspension.
NHL Player Count in 2023-2024
At the start of the 2023-2024 season, each team can have up to 23 players on their active roster. This includes:
- Forwards (usually 12-15 players)
- Defensemen (usually 6-8 players)
- Goalies (usually 2-3 players)
For, as mentioned, a total of 736 players on average.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, teams could carry additional players via their "taxi squads." However, this functionality has been removed from the league.
The differences in roster limits
The National Hockey League (NHL) has specific guidelines for team roster limits to maintain fair competition and ensure player safety. This section will focus on the distinctions between two roster types: Active Player Roster and Game Roster.
Active player roster
The active player roster consists of all players eligible for NHL games for a specific team. The NHL season is long, and not every player plays every game. The maximum number of players allowed on an active player roster is 23, and it must comply with the league's salary cap. The active player roster includes:
During the regular season, teams can adjust their active player roster. They can call up players from their minor league affiliates, place injured players on the injured reserve list, and send healthy players down to the minors.
The game roster is a subset of the active player roster. It consists of the players who will participate in a specific NHL game. The game roster has a limit of 20 players. Although some teams will do variations, such as the 11-7 format, a game-day roster typically consists of the following:
- 12 Forwards
- 6 Defensemen
- 2 Goaltenders
Coaches decide the game roster before every match based on player performance, injuries, and opponents' strengths and weaknesses. For example, a team may dress their bigger players against a team who is particularly weak on the forecheck.
The game roster provides coaches with flexibility in player combinations, lineups, and strategies.
Think of the active roster as all the players currently called up by the team and in the NHL, while the game-day roster is the 20 players (18 skaters and two goalies) the coach chooses to play that night.
If a team is tight to the salary cap, you may see them dress fewer than 18 skaters on a night. Two goalies must be dressed.
Explaining the healthy scratch
If you're on the active roster of an NHL team but not on the game-day roster, there are two reasons for this. You're either injured, or you are a healthy scratch. The term healthy scratch simply means a player not playing in the next game but not injured.
Healthy scratches still fly with the team, practice with the team, and participate in team meetings. They simply aren't playing a specific game. Many teams will have players with NHL-level talent but maybe cannot string it together game in and game out. For this reason, they rest them in the press box until the coach feels they would be a valuable addition on the ice.
They are also considered reserve players and will play in the next game when someone who is a regular on the game-day roster gets hurt.
Explaining the injured reserve list
If a player is hurt and is expected to be hurt for more than a week, a team may choose to put them on the injured reserve list. The player would be removed and not counted from the active NHL roster in this situation.
This would allow the player to remain with the team while a player is injured, and the team can call up a replacement. So, there would technically be 24 players travelling with the team, but only 23 counting towards the roster.
When a player goes on the injured reserve, they must stay there for at least seven days and cannot play in a game. For this reason, a team will typically only place a player on the injured reserve if the injury is expected to last several weeks at minimum and if they're tight for roster spots.
Why wouldn’t a team want a 23-player roster, no matter what?
If a team is tight to the salary cap, their active roster could be their game-day roster, not by choice. I'm a fan of the Edmonton Oilers, and their roster is typically structured like this due to their little cap space.
For this reason, they could carry more expensive, top-end talent at the expense of only carrying the minimum allowable roster. They'll fill the bottom end of the roster with minimum salary players.
The roster limit doesn’t matter after the NHL trade deadline
After the trade deadline, a team can carry as many players as possible. This means they can sign unrestricted free agents to their NHL rosters, have players return from injury, or even potentially call up prospects from their AHL farm team.
However, it's important to note that the team can only call up a maximum of 4 players from the American Hockey League. So, in this regard, there are still some restrictions.
A team rarely carries more than a 23-man roster, even after the trade deadline. Teams still must follow the salary cap structure, and going over the roster limit could put them over the cap. Plus, carrying a ton of active NHL players on your roster can disrupt the team and chemistry overall.
NHL maximum contract limits
50-person contract limit
In the NHL, each team is allowed a maximum of 50 Standard Player Contracts (SPCs) in their organization. This limit includes all players who are on the active roster, non-rostered players, and injured players.
The rationale behind this limit is to create a balanced competition among teams by preventing them from hoarding many players.
Additionally, the 50-contract limit allows teams to manage their roster more effectively by making strategic player development and trade decisions.
Teams must carefully consider which players to sign, as reaching the maximum limit may affect their ability to acquire talent in the future.
You will very often see teams hovering between 47-50 active contracts. However, it's typically rare for a team to stay at the 50 contract mark as it allows for little flexibility.
90 player reserve list
Besides the 50-contract limit, NHL teams also have a "Reserve List." This list includes players whose rights are owned by the team but not under a Standard Player Contract. The Reserve List can have up to 90 players, including those who are:
- unsigned draft choices,
- unsigned draft-exchange agreements,
- unsigned restricted free agents,
- unsigned players acquired through trades.
It is important to note that the 90-player reserve list and the 50-contract limit are separate entities and players on the reserve list do not count against the 50-contract limit.
Having a large reserve list allows teams to maintain the rights to prospects and potential future NHL players while giving these players time to develop in other leagues, such as juniors or college hockey.
In summary, the NHL establishes roster limits with a 50-person contract limit and a 90-player reserve list to promote balanced competition among its teams. These limits encourage strategic decisions on player development and roster management, ultimately benefiting the league.