Understanding the NHL Draft

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Shortly after a Stanley Cup champion is crowned, the whir of a lottery machine jostling ping-pong-sized balls sets in motion NHL draft pick positioning for the teams ineligible for the playoffs during the recently ended season.

NHL Draft Rules

Players from North America are eligible for the draft if they’re between the ages of 18 and 20, according to the NHL draft rules. European and other international players over age 20 are eligible.

The bottom 15 teams (out of 31 total as of 2020) from the previous season go to the top of the pecking order in the NHL draft to choose their next recruits. Beyond those 15 teams, all of the others’ picks are based on the inverse order (worst to best) of the standings from the recently ended season.

A player who is not signed within two years of being drafted by an NHL team is allowed to re-enter the draft as long as he is younger than 20 at the time of the subsequent draft. An exception is made for NCAA players: NHL teams retain the rights to a college player they’ve drafted until 30 days after the player has left college.

The NHL draft includes seven rounds, with each team allotted one pick per round.

NHL Draft Lottery

The NHL draft lottery determines the order in which teams get to choose players to draft. This weighted lottery process means the odds of winning are weighted on a descending scale that gives the greatest chance to the team with the lowest point total from the previous season, and the worst chance to the team with the highest point total.

The lottery starts with the 15 teams that didn’t make the playoffs. Numbers are randomly generated by a computer and assigned to each of those teams; the first three numbers pulled govern who gets the first, second, and third picks. As noted in the NHL draft rules above, the remaining teams in that group of 15 choose players based on the inverse order of the standings from the previous season.

  • The teams that made the playoffs in the previous season but did not win their division in the regular season or play in the NHL Conference Finals get picks 16 to 23.
  • The teams that won their divisions in the previous season but did not play in the Conference Finals will potentially pick in positions 24 to 27.
  • The two teams that lose in the NHL Conference Finals get picks 28 and 29.
  • The second place team the NHL Stanley Cup Finals gets the 30th pick.
  • The Stanley Cup winner from the recently ended season chooses last with pick 31.

Free Agency

North Americans age 20 and older automatically become unrestricted free agents — players without a team, who can entertain and potentially accept offers from any team after the draft is completed. Teams losing players to unrestricted free agency do not receive any compensation from the league. Instead, under the league’s collective agreement that existed prior to 2005, teams receive draft picks as compensation.

A player whose contract has expired can declare himself an unrestricted free agent if he’s at least 27 years old or has been playing in the NHL for at least seven years. The league limits contract durations for unrestricted free agents to seven years.

According to the NHL, all non-North Americans — regardless of their age — must be drafted before they can sign an NHL contract, even if they ultimately become an unrestricted free agent.

History of the NHL Draft

The first NHL draft was held in 1963 in Montreal. Called the NHL Amateur Draft (now known as the NHL Entry Draft), it was established as a way to eliminate the sponsorship of amateur teams and players by the league’s member teams. The NHL at that time developed the drafting system to give each team an equal opportunity to acquire the best amateur players.

This first draft consisted of just four rounds. Amateur players 17 years and older were eligible, as long as they weren’t already sponsored by an NHL club. Several years later, anyone over 20 was eligible, as NHL amateur sponsorship had been eliminated.

In subsequent years, young players became eligible for the draft once they advanced from a junior hockey league. A player could also be signed as a free agent in the year he reached his 20th birthday. From the late 1980s until the early 1990s, the age of players eligible for the draft was lowered to 18, but they could be drafted only in the first three rounds, unless they met other criteria of experience: having played in a major junior league, high school, and U.S. college, or in a European hockey league.

Until 1994, the order of teams’ draft picks was determined solely by the standings at the end of the previous regular season — the last place finisher picked first, while the Stanley Cup champion chose last. The following year, the NHL draft lottery was introduced.

Changes for the 2020 NHL Draft

Due to the paused season and the expanded playoff format for 2019-2020, the 2020 NHL draft and lottery was different from the norm. Twenty-four teams were included in an expanded qualifying round for the Stanley Cup playoffs, instead of the usual sixteen. To prevent a scenario in which the Stanley Cup winner also won the draft lottery, the lottery was split into phases.

The first phase consisted of drawings among the seven teams who missed the playoffs, along with the eight potential losing teams from the qualifying round (as the playoffs hadn’t started at the time of the drawing, these teams were represented as placeholders: Team A, Team B, etc.) If any of the top three picks went to a playoff team, there would be an optional second phase among the teams eliminated in the qualifying round; that happened when “Team E” received the first overall pick. After the second lottery, the remaining draft positions were assigned according to the teams’ points percentage in the standings and the results of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Ultimately, the New York Rangers won the top pick, choosing 19-year-old Canadian left winger Alexis Lafrenière.

Best NHL Draft Classes

The most successful NHL draft classes, according to the NHL, happened in 1979, 1988, and 2003.


Defenseman Kevin Lowe was chosen by the Edmonton Oilers in the 21st round. During the 1980s, he helped the team win five Stanley Cup trophies, as did Mark Messier, who was also drafted in 1979. This was the same year the World Hockey Association merged with the NHL, which ultimately led to hockey legend Wayne Gretsky transferring into the newly combined league. He, too, was a member of those five championship teams.


Mike Modano — sometimes referred to as Superman — was drafted by the then-Minnesota North Stars, which became the Dallas Stars in the early 1990s. He helped the team win the 1998-99 Stanley Cup, and before retiring in 2011 scored 561 goals, making him the highest scoring U.S.-born player in NHL history (as of 2017).

Among several other top players drafted in 1988 was Jeremy Roenick, who was chosen by the Chicago Blackhawks — he scored 513 total goals as a member of several teams before retiring in 2009. Finland-born Teemu Selanne, drafted by the Winnipeg Jets, finished his career in 2014 with 684 goals.


Nine players drafted in this year became NHL all-stars, including Eric Staal, chosen by the Carolina Hurricanes; Dion Phaneuf, drafted by the Calgary Flames; and Ryan Getzlaf, picked by the Anaheim Ducks. Other top players drafted in 2003 include Stanley Cup winners Marc-André Fleury (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Patrice Bergeron (Boston Bruins).

The NHL draft is an exciting time for many players looking to kick-start or continue their career in the league. Getting to choose players as early in the draft order as possible can make all the difference in a team’s success, as well as that of the players chosen, in the coming season.