How the NHL Draft Works

Rules and Regulations of the NHL Entry Draft.

Bri Weldon/flickr/CC BY 2.0

It can help to understand how a draft works when you're watching the event, waiting to see how your favorite team fares. The NHL Entry Draft consists of seven rounds. Each team is assigned one pick in each round. Draft picks can be traded at any time.

Draft Order

The 14 teams that missed the playoffs during the previous NHL season are awarded the first 14 picks. They draft in order of the fewest points scored in that season to the most points, subject to the results of the draft lottery.

The lottery is held among the teams that hold these first 14 picks. There is only one winning team in the lottery. That team is awarded the first overall selection, and the remaining teams selected according to the points they scored prior to 2016. Then the lottery was tweaked in a two-year phase-in period in 2015 and 2016, giving the 10 highest-finishing of the 14 teams somewhat better odds. The other four teams receive worse odds. Beginning in 2016, the lottery determines the top three draft selections.

The current Stanley Cup champion always picks last, in 31st place, and the Stanley Cup runner-up picks 30th. The other two conference finalists pick 29th and 28th.

Regular-season division winners hold the other lowest positions. The remaining teams draft in order of the fewest points scored to most points from the previous regular season.

There are 31 NHL teams overall. 

Eligible Players

North American Players who turn 18 by September 15 and who are no older than 20 by December 31 are eligible for selection in the NHL draft in that year.

Non-North American players over the age of 20 are eligible. 

A North American player who is not drafted by the age of 20 is an unrestricted free agent. All non-North Americans must be drafted before being signed, regardless of age.

Re-Entering the Draft

A player who is not signed by his NHL team within two years of being drafted can re-enter the draft as long as he no older than 20 at the time of the subsequent draft.

Players over 20 become unrestricted free agents.

NCAA players are an exception: NHL teams retain the rights to a college player until 30 days after the player has left college.

A team that does not sign a first-round draft pick is awarded a compensatory pick in a future draft upon losing the rights to that player.

A player who has been drafted a second time cannot re-enter.

Recent Changes

  • European players: NHL teams retained the rights to a European player until that player turned 31 prior to the 2005 season. Drafted Europeans must now be signed within two years, the same as North Americans, or the team loses its rights to the player.
  • NCAA players: As of 2004, 18-year-old players from NCAA Division I schools can be drafted and retain their college eligibility as long as they don't play for a pro team or hire an agent. In previous years, an 18-year-old who opted into the draft lost his NCAA eligibility.
  • Compensatory picks: As of 2005, a team that loses a veteran player as an unrestricted free agent is no longer awarded a compensatory pick in a future draft.
  • A shorter draft: The draft was reduced from nine to seven rounds in 2005.