NHL Draft Guide: Everything You Need to Know

The NHL is the world’s top ice hockey competition. The league features 32 teams and each team plays 82 games during the NHL’s regular season. Once the regular season ends, the league is whittled down to 16 ice hockey clubs that qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. The NHL postseason is one of the most exciting in all sports, as the fast-paced ice hockey action gets turned up a notch.

You may wonder how NHL teams are assembled. Well, there are ice hockey leagues all over the world. The NHL just happens to be the elite hockey league, with players from around the globe playing for its 32 teams. Each NHL team has its own set of minor league teams giving younger, future stars of the NHL the chance to develop their skills.

The NHL Draft is the process by which teams select their players. Some players will go straight into the NHL squad and compete for a role with the team during the preseason, while other players will be sent to the minor leagues to develop, with the opportunity to be called up in the future.

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Professional North American sports like ice hockey, basketball, NFL football, and baseball, have long used a draft system to populate their teams. It is as North American as apple pie. But how does the draft work and which players are available in the NHL Draft?


NHL Draft Process

You may think that the NHL player draft is like the one used by cricket leagues such as the Indian Premier League. However, it is very different from the cricket drafts. The NHL Draft – like the drafts used by other North American sports leagues – allows its teams to select from a pool of amateur players.

The draft takes place annually and allows the NHL’s 32 teams to select a hockey player’s rights. Players must be a minimum of 18 years old to enter the NHL Draft. North American ice hockey players can be no older than 20 years old to go into the draft. Meanwhile, players from Europe cannot be older than 21.

The teams are placed in order to make their selections. This prevents one team from selecting the best young prospects all at once. Teams make one selection per round. There are seven rounds of the draft.

A team’s regular season performance and final standing will influence their position in the draft’s pecking order. The better a team does, the less likely they are to select the top young prospects. Like other major North American sports, the NHL Draft rewards the worst team following the regular season. The team with the worst points total is more likely to select the best prospect overall.

The NHL Draft’s order is partly determined by a lottery. The 16 teams that do not qualify for the NHL Playoffs are put into a weighted lottery. The team with the fewest regular-season points will have more balls placed into the lottery than the team with the most points that missed the playoffs. Although this sounds confusing, it isn’t in practice. Although it should be remembered that the worst team simply has more opportunities to land the first round pick of the draft.

The lottery will be drawn randomly to determine the draft’s first 16 selections. The 16 clubs that qualified for the playoffs will make their draft selections based on their postseason performances. The team that wins the Stanley Cup will select last. Each draft round will continue in the same order.

The draft does not allow teams in the NHL to select players from other teams within the league. Rather, the draft enables teams to select the best young prospects from high school, college, and amateur ice hockey. The draft acts as an entry point for players joining a professional hockey team in the NHL.

In Europe, many soccer teams have academies to nurture and train young players. In the NHL, the development of young players is down to the youth, grassroots, and amateur hockey clubs that kids play for.

Once a team selects a player, the ice hockey club has the exclusive rights to sign the player for a two-year period. International player rights are held for four years. In 2022, the NHL’s 32 teams drafted a total of 225 players across the seven-round event. The NHL holds the draft once the Stanley Cup Finals end, which is typically in late June.

NHL Draft History

The NHL Draft has welcomed some of the biggest names to ever play ice hockey. One of the unique aspects of the draft is the unknown quantity of many of the players. Some players are expected to thrive and become superstars. There are others that little is expected from them. The NHL Draft is not pure science. Not all top prospects go on to stellar careers, just as players picked in the latter stages of the draft do not fade immediately after the selection process.

Most Notable picks

Mario Lemieux

Forward Mario Lemieux was selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1984. Lemieux was the first player taken in the 1984 draft. He went on to have one of the most successful NHL careers of all time. Some experts believe that no NHL player was more important to his team than Lemieux was to the Penguins. He won two Stanley Cup trophies in 1991 and 1992. There was also an assortment of individual trophies along the way. In 1993, Lemieux announced he had Hodgkin lymphoma, yet played at one point during radiation treatment. Lemieux retired for good in 2006.

Guy Lafleur

The Montreal Canadiens took Guy Lafluer first overall in 1971. Lafleur, who now has a statue outside Montreal’s Bell Centre Arena, was a part of the Canadiens’ incredible 1970s dynasty. Between 1973 and 1979, he won five Stanley Cup trophies. He led the league in points for three consecutive seasons from 1976 to 1978. In May 2022, just weeks after his death, Lafleur was awarded a national funeral by Canada. He was a true Canadian hero.

Connor McDavid

Connor McDavid is a modern-day notable draft pick in the middle of a Hall of Fame career. McDavid was drafted first overall in 2015 by the Edmonton Oilers. Although he hasn’t won the Stanley Cup, McDavid has won a host of individual trophies. The forward collected five 100-point-plus seasons. From 2017 to 2023, McDavid collected five Art Ross Trophies for scoring the most points in an NHL season. McDavid is a hockey star and will likely win the Stanley Cup at some point.

Draft Steals

One or two players turn out to be a draft steal every year. It may take a season or two for a player to become a real draft steal. The teams that find these diamonds in the rough benefit greatly from their draft scouting.

Pavel Datsyuk

Selected 171st overall in 1998, Pavel Datsyuk was an overlooked young hockey player. The forward was only seen when a scout was on hand to watch another player. Datsyuk played for the Detroit Red Wings from 2001 to 2016.

Henrik Lundqvist

Henrik Lundqvist had a 15-year NHL career with the New York Rangers. The Swede was taken No 205 in the 2000 NHL Draft, but it didn’t stop him from becoming one of the best goaltenders of the century. Lundqvist won the Vezina Trophy in 2011-12 and was the Rangers’ MVP in nine seasons. Lundqvist earned the nickname “The King” for his commanding performances in the net.

Mark Messier

Mark Messier may not be considered a steal like Datsyuk or Lundqvist, but the former Edmonton Oiler and New York Ranger was still overlooked by plenty of teams before being drafted. The Oilers selected Messier with the No 48 pick in 1979. Messier won six Stanley Cup Finals, five with the Oilers during their 1980s dynasty. He also collected the 1984 Conn Smythe Trophy while playing next to Wayne Gretzky.

The Evolution of the NHL Draft

The NHL Entry Draft was created in 1963. The draft’s creation was to stop the existing teams from monopolizing junior players. Before the NHL Entry Draft, teams signed players based on their junior teams.

NHL teams sponsored junior teams, allowing them to select the best talent from those amateur clubs. A player could not play for an NHL team that didn’t sponsor their junior club.

The 1969 NHL Draft was the first to be fully separated from the old junior club sponsorship system. Since then, the draft has worked in much the same way, allowing teams to select amateur players from colleges and junior hockey programs.

NHL Draft for International Players

International players have had a major impact on the league’s draft over the years, and that impact is likely to continue. NHL clubs can draft a European player and hold his rights for the next four years. This prevents other NHL teams from trying to sign the player, even if he plays for a team in Europe. In comparison, an NHL club can only hold a North American player’s rights for two years.

There is different treatment for North American players and international players. However, one of the biggest differences between the two sets of players is the experience the internationals may possess. Some international players have already played professional hockey in Europe before arriving in the NHL. This gives them a leg-up on the North American players coming out of college or junior hockey.

In the NHL Draft 2018, the top three picks were all from Europe. It was the first time this had occurred in the NHL. Although international players can come to the NHL with professional experience, they can find it difficult to get into the league. The four-year exclusivity rights clubs have over foreign players is a benefit to the NHL’s teams and not the players. Players lack any kind of negotiation power and must agree to sign with the team that drafted them or be placed on a reserve list.

NHL Draft Analytics

All North American professional sports leagues use analytics. Over the last 25 years, analytics has become a household term. Compared to baseball, NFL football, and basketball, hockey was slow to adopt analytics to help scout players. It was believed ice hockey was too fast and brutal to use numbers to analyze player performance.

Today, more teams are using analytics to fuel their draft picks as opposed to subjective evaluations from scouts. The eyes and minds of scouts are still valuable, but they are typically there to back up the numbers.

Analytics can tell teams how fast a player skates, how hard they hit the puck, the level of their fatigue, and much more. These metrics can influence a hockey club in the draft process. No longer is a tall, physically imposing player selected ahead of players producing strong metrics. Teams are also using analytics to understand which areas of the team to improve through the draft. Metrics offer an objective look at the areas that need help and the strong parts of a team.

Teams can use metrics to influence their draft picks, but at the end of the day, the players still must perform. Like relying on a scout to provide intel on a prospect, analytics can only explain so much. A player can still struggle once they reach the NHL. The speed, brutality, and lifestyle can all take their toll on a young prospect. Analytics simply reinforce which players a team should target in the draft and weed out the players that don’t suit their playing style.

NHL Draft Trades

The NHL’s 32 teams have the right to trade away their draft picks. Each team receives seven picks for a draft. The teams can use one of their seven picks to trade to another team for a player. For example, in 2013, the Calgary Flames traded Jarome Iginla to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a first-round draft pick. This gave the Flames an additional draft pick and took one away from the Penguins. Instead of drafting a prospect, the Penguins added an experienced hockey player in Iginla.

Teams can trade one or more draft picks to teams for established players. Indeed, a team could trade away all seven of its picks for an NHL Draft. This is unlikely to happen due to the importance of prospects and young players. Young players will often make less in salary than established players and this helps to keep costs down. It also allows a fresh batch of talent to come through the NHL team’s squad.

Some teams will stash young prospects to trade in the future for more established NHL players. In some cases, a team fighting for a playoff place or to reach the Stanley Cup Finals will use draft picks as part of a trade to acquire the “missing piece” of the team.

For example, in 2001, the Colorado Avalanche acquired defenseman Rob Blake from the LA Kings for Steve Reinprecht and two first-round picks. Blake helped the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup at the end of the season.

Teams can also trade their drafts on draft day. In some cases, a team will trade up in the NHL Draft by sending their pick to a rival team along with another player. Trading up enables a team to move up in the selection order to pick a coveted player.

Teams can be quite active on draft day. It is a time of team building and many teams need pieces ahead of the new season. In 2004, the Montreal Canadiens traded Radek Bonk to the LA Kings for a 3rd round draft pick. Two years later, the Calgary Flames acquired Alex Tanguay from the Colorado Avalanche for Jordan Leopold, a 2nd round pick and a conditional 2nd round pick in 2007 or 2008.

Draft day trades don’t necessarily provide the blockbuster deals other trades inspire. The benefit of a draft day trade is it allows teams to move into a better position to acquire a player. It also allows teams to add more draft picks.

The disadvantage it brings is teams can act too quickly and trade away an established player or draft pick it shouldn’t. Some NHL teams will try as hard as possible not to trade away their draft picks. Oftentimes, draft picks are seen as gold. They provide teams with young players that earn less when entering the league than established stars.


What is the NHL Draft Lottery?

The 16 clubs that do not progress to the NHL Playoffs are placed into a weighted lottery. The team with the fewest regular-season points will have more opportunities to win the lottery compared to the other 15 teams. The lottery is drawn randomly and it determines the draft’s first 16 selections. This enables the worst teams in the NHL, the ones that didn’t make the playoffs, to select from the 16 best player prospects in the draft.

How many rounds are in the NHL Draft?

The NHL Draft has a total of seven rounds. Teams take turns making their selections and each round features the same draft order. A total of 225 players are selected in the draft.

When is the NHL Draft held?

It is held after the Stanley Cup Finals finish, usually in late June.

What is the draft order based on?

The draft’s first 16 places are determined by a weighted lottery featuring the teams that did not qualify for the playoffs. The remaining selection order is based on the teams who qualified for the playoffs and their order of elimination from the postseason. For example, the team that wins the Stanley Cup will pick last.

What happens if a team doesn't make a selection in a draft round?

Teams have a set amount of time to make their draft picks. Teams won’t refuse to make a selection, as a draft pick is very valuable for future team building.

What pick was Gretzky drafted at?

Wayne Gretzky was never drafted into the NHL. Gretzky, the greatest ice hockey player of all time, already played for the Edmonton Oilers when the club joined the NHL in 1979. The NHL merged with clubs from the WHL, and Edmonton kept their players when they joined.

Do NHL Drafts get paid?

Many people think players are suddenly rich when they are drafted but this is not the case. The top prospects drafted by a team will receive an entry-level contract, bonuses, and other financial incentives. Players drafted in the higher rounds of the draft may not receive a contract. They may simply be offered the chance to come to preseason instead to battle for a place on the team.

What is the age limit for rookies in the NHL?

A player is no longer considered a rookie if they are 26-years-old or older. A player must have not played 25 NHL games or more in the previous season. In addition, players must not have played in six or more games in the two previous seasons

Who was the youngest NHL Draft pick?

Armand “Bep” Guidolin is the youngest-ever NHL draftee. In 1942, Guidolin made his NHL debut aged 16. Teams are no longer able to draft players younger than 18.

Can an NHL team win the draft lottery two years in a row?

The NHL limits the number of times a team can win the draft lottery to prevent teams from purposefully playing poorly to gain the top pick. Starting in 2022, a club can only receive the top NHL Draft pick twice in a five-year period.

Can a player enter the draft twice?

Players can enter the draft twice. College players may decide to return to play amateur ice hockey after being drafted. They can then enter the draft the following season after playing another year of amateur ice hockey.

What happens to unsigned NHL draft picks?

Teams retain the exclusive rights to sign a player even if the player does not sign a contract. A player’s rights restricted free agent are usually held for four years by a hockey club. Some unsigned draft picks can become free agents. Players who are not selected during the draft become free agents as well.

Learn more about other drafts in our guides:

2024 NHL Draft Guide

The NHL Draft comes up shortly after the Stanley Cup is awarded. Teams and front offices want to get to work right away, shifting their focus to next season, and the draft is the first order of business. This year, the NHL Draft is set to take place on June 28th and 29th at Sphere at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas.