How Many Players Are On a Hockey Team?

Posted on May 19, 2024 by Dan Kent
Alex Ovechkin

An NHL team has a set number of players they can "carry" at any given time. This can vary among teams, depending on their salary cap situation. However, I can provide some generic guidance on how many people are on a hockey team, plus explain some unique traits of the NHL roster.

I've updated this article recently to eliminate the old information about the taxi squad. This was a system the NHL used during the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid the spread of COVID-19. There were stringent rules on player substitutions, and the player limit was increased with the implementation of the taxi squad. However, that is now long gone, and we're back to normal.

How many people are on a hockey team?

According to the NHL's operations guidelines, there may be a maximum number of 23 players on a club's active roster at any time. The team roster must consist of a minimum of 20 players at any time — which needs to be made up of 18 skaters of any position and two goalkeepers. It's important to note that players on the injury reserve roster don't count towards the active 23 men on the team.

If a team is tight to the salary cap, they may carry only 20 or 21 players. In contrast, a team with ample cap room may run a full 23-person roster.

However, just because you can carry 23 players doesn't mean you can play 23 players a game. Let's look at the difference between active rosters and game-day rosters.

Active rosters vs. game-day rosters

Fans may be more familiar with the concept of a game-day roster — as it's the list of players who will physically dress for the game and sit on the bench and take the ice throughout the night. This may seem like the most important roster, but several more make up your favorite NHL team.

A team's active roster can include additional players who don't necessarily take the ice but are still "active" and can be subbed in daily. Players on the active roster are in healthy playing condition, and the few players who don't dress for the game are considered healthy scratches.

Healthy scratches are ready to play, unlike players on the injury reserve roster. Still, there was simply not enough room on the game roster for that night. These scratches get paid the same as if they did play, so it's not such a bad deal, considering they get to watch the game and have the night off.

The 20 players who dress for the game must come from the NHL team's current active roster list. Naturally, there will be three maximum players left over who inevitably need to be scratched. 

Any changes to either roster require approval from the NHL Central Registry in advance, and a team must show them to the game officials before the first puck drop.

What does 11 and 7 mean in hockey?

11 and 7 refer to the number of forwards and defensemen a team dresses in any game. Typically, a team will dress 12 forwards and six defensemen, leaving four forward lines of 3 forwards each and three defenseman pairings. However, many teams, particularly those with top-end players who can play long minutes, may decide to pay 11 forwards and seven defensemen.

In this situation, there will typically be a forward that double shifts down the lineup, allowing a coach to deploy seven defensemen and possibly reduce the workload and minutes of some of their players.

A prime example of a team that does this often is the Edmonton Oilers. Because the Oilers have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who often play more than 25 minutes a night, they can afford to double shift these players, all while adding an extra defenseman to the lineup.

It also makes it difficult for the opposing team to line match, as the player on the team running 11 and 7 double shifts is typically one of the best players on the team.

How many players are on the ice at any given time?

There are six players per team on the ice during regular strength play: five players and a goaltender. A team can put any players they want out on the ice. However, it is typically structured to have three forwards and two defensemen on the ice.

So, just a little over 25% of an active NHL roster is on the ice at any given time during a game when there are no penalties.

What is it called in hockey when one team has more players?

When one team has more players on the ice, they are said to be on the powerplay, while the team who is short a player is said to be shorthanded.

How many hockey players are on the ice in overtime?

The number of players on the ice for overtime can change depending on the situation. For example, during the regular season, a team will ice four players, three skaters and a goaltender. This encourages more scoring, as there is more room on the ice. However, overtime usually runs in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with six players on the ice for each team, five skaters and a goaltender.

What is the NHL contract limit?

NHL teams have a set limit for how many players under contract they can have during any given season. Currently, this number is at 50 professional players maximum that a team can have during the year.

This means that if a team wants to do any player signings, waiver claims, or any trade involving them taking more players back than they're sending, they need to make sure they're under the 50 contract limit when the transaction is executed. Very few NHL teams sit at 50 contracts, as it reduces their overall flexibility when it comes to roster moves.

These players under contract include all active roster players and anyone on the injury reserve list. However, draftees are usually unsigned at first. So, they don't count towards this number until the team offers them a contract.

An NHL team can offer several types of contracts, namely one-way, two-way, and entry-level contracts. Two-way contracts are often for players who are not good enough to crack an NHL lineup fully. Their salary is adjusted accordingly when they are sent down to the minors. A player on a one-way NHL deal will be paid his full salary in the minor leagues.

Players on two-way deals may spend most of their season in the American Hockey League. However, they're still technically under contract with the NHL club. All entry-level contracts for rookies are two-way contracts, and all players under 25 years of age must be signed to an entry-level two-way contract as their first contract in the NHL.

How many players can an NHL team have on reserve?

Regarding reserve lists, it gets a bit more complicated, and clubs have to finesse the numbers to ensure they're staying up on protocol. According to the NHL rules, a team can have a maximum of 80 players who "belong" to the team in one way or another.

This number may not exceed 50 pro players and can also be made up of signed junior players and unsigned draft choices. For the junior players to meet this eligibility, they must have played fewer than 11 professional games.

Of these 80 players, they're not all necessarily NHL-ready. Many will continue to develop for several years before they get the chance to play in the big league. However, it's in an NHL team's best interest to have a solid group of developing promising young players, as they will more than likely be the next generation of NHL stars down the line.

Players on the injured reserve list

Suppose a player's injury is severe enough. In that case, they can be placed on the injury reserve list — thus clearing an opening on the team's active roster. Injured players don't count as active players or healthy scratches, as they cannot take the ice at that moment.

However, once a player is placed on the injury reserve list, they must remain there for at least seven days. Depending on the injury, a player can be on this list for quite some time while receiving care and even surgery.

Injured players can still travel, attend team meetings, and practice with the team if they can. There's no benefit to shunning an injured player, as it could negatively impact mental health to do so, and it's best to keep the player around their teammates to boost motivation and wellbeing.

NHL rosters can be complicated

A lot of juggling goes into keeping up with a team's different rosters. Younger players who are developing are always hoping to get a contract offer — which an NHL team only has 50 to give out.

Active rosters and game day rosters are the ones that most fans have familiarized themselves with, as these are the players they're seeing the most often. It can be exciting when a new player gets called up and fans can see them on a bigger stage and perhaps even earn themselves a spot on the team permanently.

NHL rosters comprise active and healthy players, those who are injured and rehabilitating, developing draftee picks, and even players who have defected to the European leagues for some time. There's a lot that goes on behind the scenes to bring an NHL team together, and it's something many people are unaware of. Layers are on the ice at a time for each team.

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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