So You Want to Make the NHL?
I won’t be the first one to tell you that there is a lot of work involved in making it to the top hockey league in the world, but I might be the first to tell you that there are many different paths to make it to the top. So take your curved visor and your ankle tape off, it’s time to get a little lesson.
Let’s Talk About the Draft
The NHL entry draft is a yearly event that provides teams with an opportunity to own the NHL rights to the best young prospects in the world of hockey. Currently, it is a 7-round event taking place a few days after the Stanley Cup Final. To be eligible for the draft, you must be a North-American between the ages of 18-20 or a European of at least 18. If you make those requirements, then congratulations, you are able to be drafted!
There are many rules that go about being signed by a club, but you just want to worry about being drafted in the first place.
Being selected in the NHL draft is the goal of almost any hockey player. But your work doesn’t end after you get drafted. In fact, there is a big drop off in percentage of draftees in the first 3 rounds and the last 4 in making the NHL and an even greater drop off from the first round to the second. TSN defines an NHL player as one who has played 50 or more games; they found out that, from 2000-2009, there is a 30% chance that players in the third round make become an NHL player and a 20% chance of that in the fourth round. The percentages flat line after that almost. However, the 80% of players in the first round that make the NHL should be happy they were drafted in the first round, because only 44% of second rounders make the NHL.
So make sure you don’t slack off after being drafted. There is more work ahead!
You Weren’t Drafted. Now What?
So you entered in the draft only to not be snagged by an NHL team. Is your dream over? Far from it.
If you were passed over, you can now be signed by an NHL team in free agency. There have been many players who have had long and successful years in the NHL after being passed over in the draft. For example, Martin St. Louis was signed by the Calgary Flames in 1998 and then went on to have a 1034 point career. More recently, Torey Krug of the Boston Bruins went undrafted.
In an even odder circumstance, you can be drafted but never signed to a contract. Take Kevin Hayes for example.
Hayes was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2010 entry draft. A first round pick, he played for Boston College from 2011-2014. Because of the fact that you cannot be signed to a professional contract and play in the NCAA at the same time and because he wouldn’t leave Boston College, the Blackhawks had his rights for 4 years. The Blackhawks’ rights to him expired In August of 2014, leaving him in free agency. The New York Rangers signed him, and the Blackhawks received an extra draft pick as a compensatory pick.
If you are a European over the age of 20, you can still be drafted in the NHL if you opt-in. Theoretically, that means you could be drafted by an NHL team at age 40 if you are good enough at that age.
Which Road Do You Choose?
There are many other stipulations and rules that have to do with the Entry Draft, but you don’t care about that right now. You just want to take the best route possible to make the NHL.
But there are so many ways to make the NHL. How can you decide what is best for you? Well, you could start off by giving yourself an honest evaluation of your skill level and decide where you could make a name for yourself.
But you think you can go anywhere you want. Confident? for sure. Cocky? 100%.
Now, there are three main routes that you could possibly take to be drafted and eventually play in the NHL.
The Stats Don’t Lie
Above is the total number of draft picks from the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), the United States Hockey League (USHL), college, international leagues, and all other junior A leagues across Canada and the USA from 2000-2014. A link to the PDF version of this spreadsheet is located at the bottom of the article.
You can quite clearly see that the easiest path to the NHL is to go through the Canadian Hockey League. 43.1% of all draftees come from Canada’s major junior league.
Coming in second, players in international leagues are drafted with a 27.7% share. This can mean from leagues such as the Kontinental Hockey (KHL) in Russia, the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), and Liiga in Finland. The NHL views these leagues as amateur leagues instead of professional.
After that, the path becomes a lot foggier. Obviously, the statistics show that coming from the United States is the next best option. 7.1% of draftees come from the USHL, 6.9% comes from college, and a surprising 6.1% come from high school.
Path 1: The CHL
The CHL is an umbrella organization that is formed by 3 leagues across Canada: The Western Hockey League (WHL), the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), and the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). The winners of each league come together at the end of their seasons to play in the Memorial Cup in a city in Canada where another team plays.
On a side note, the host city is allowed to have their team play in the Memorial Cup even if they were last in their league. That’s ridiculous, but let’s save that story for another day.
There are differences in each of the 3 leagues. The WHL is generally known to have a defensive edge to it, the QMJHL generally has poorer defense and higher scoring, and the OHL could be argued as the most all-around league.
But you, Mr. All Star, want to know how to join this league. Well, there are a few different ways. In fact, there are 5 different ways.
The WHL, QMJHL, and OHL all have their own drafts to select second-year bantam players from specific regions of North America. The WHL can select kids as young as 15 from many western states and Canadian provinces. The QMJHL and OHL can select kids as young as 16 from their specific locations in the US and Canada.
Some players are given exceptional player status in the QMJHL and the OHL to play at a younger age, such as John Tavares.
What if you are a European? Of course, you have different ways to get to the CHL. Every year, each CHL team are given a max of 2 foreign players to choose from the CHL Import Draft.
If your dream is to make the CHL, don’t be mad if you don’t get drafted. In fact, take it as an opportunity to play for Junior A and B teams in the tiers underneath the CHL and work your way up.
Also, if you think you can play in the CHL and then move to the NCAA, don’t think so fast; CHL players get a stipend for playing and because of that, the NCAA views them as professionals. U Sports in Canada, the collegiate sport system, does not view them as professionals and will open players with open arms from the CHL.
Path 2: Europe
Europe is large. Europe has many professional hockey leagues. Maybe not to the NHL, but to the rest of the world, it does. European style hockey is different than North American style hockey. It focuses on finesse more so than physical play.
Europe also has promotion and relegation in some leagues. For you casual North American sports fans, promotion is given to teams in lower divisions who do well to move to the higher divisions, while relegation is given to teams who do poorly and are sent to lower divisions. Imagine how bad the Oilers were since their cup run in 2006. Now imagine them playing in the AHL. That is promotion and relegation.
But I’m going on a tangent.
You are European or a North American who wants to play in European leagues as your path to the NHL. This can end up being a very good choice for you.
In fact, because you are playing in professional leagues, you will be getting paid. Imagine you play for CSKA Moscow in the KHL. They are one of the most historic and richest teams in European/Russian hockey. Your goal is to play in the NHL, but you never get the call to the draft or get a contract offered to you. You will still be able to make a living playing for CSKA.
Yes, it is a much safer bet to get paid in the NHL than in Europe due to the financial instability of some leagues and teams in Europe, but in the end, you still get to be paid for playing the sport you love.
There is also a factor of the way that hockey is played in Europe; agility is rated much higher than the ability to hit and grind. The rink is also much bigger than in North America, and that plays a big part in the transitional struggles of players going from Europe to North America and vice versa. There simply is more room to maneuver on European ice.
Auston Matthews, the 1st overall draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs this year played with the ZSC Lions of the Swiss NLA last season.
Playing in Europe is probably the safest way to make sure you can play hockey as a career.
Path 3: The USHL
If this article was being written around 10 years ago, it would easily be about how playing NCAA hockey is a much better path to the NHL than the USHL, created in 2000. But, the USHL has been smashing the NCAA in NHL draftees in recent years. In 2014, the weight-shift into the USHL’s favor was at an all-time high: 30 draft picks to the NCAA’s 5.
The USHL has a very Midwestern vibe to it as most of the teams are located in the region. The NAHL and the NA3HL spread themselves out across the US, which is interesting since they are the tier 2 and 3 leagues in the US juniors system.
There is a major difference between the USHL and the CHL in that the NCAA allows USHL players to play collegiate hockey. That is due to the fact that the USHL does not pay their players.
This is the premier path to go if you want to play in the NCAA one day.
So how do you join the join the USHL? Well, there are two ways. And thankfully, they are a lot less complex than making it to the CHL.
You can be drafted into either phase 1 or 2 of the draft. Phase 1 is for futures players – players under 17 – that are eligible to play in the following year. There are 10 rounds of this specific phase. In phase 2, the draft is for all eligible junior players at that time. This phase is 45 rounds.
If you aren’t drafted, that’s OK; you might be invited to training camp.
The main thing that USHL teams – and to a lesser extent, NAHL and NA3HL teams – have to make decisions on who makes the team and who does not is the training camp. Although the draft is a major part to making the USHL, everyone goes to training camp, whether you were drafted or not. There can be around 60-80 players at any one camp. With that being said, the competition to make the USHL can be fierce. Before the season starts, the teams must shrink down to a 23-man roster.
If players don’t find success here, they always can play in the NAHL and NA3HL to find success there.
The next step for most USHL players is to commit and join an NCAA D1 team. They could join a D3 team or even an ACHA team, but their chances of being drafted into the NHL become slim to almost none then.
Without going into too much detail about the NCAA, many say that the competition there is higher than anywhere else in junior/amateur hockey. Although that may be true, the majority of players drafted into the NHL in the US come from the USHL. That isn’t to say that players drafted in the USHL don’t eventually play in the NCAA, however. The talent in the NCAA is there, but some of that talent was already discovered before joining the college ranks.
The Other Paths
While these three ways are the most likely ways you can get drafted, there still are other ways, albeit with a smaller opportunity. You could play in the NAHL, NA3HL, and the Junior A and B leagues in Canada and get drafted, but the chances are extremely slim. There simply is not enough scouting to get leagues such as those major coverage.
In the end, the chances of being drafted at all are very slim even with playing in the CHL, Europe, or the USHL. It is a pipe-dream for most people. You must have a backup plan when you are trying to play sports professionally, and that must be activated by a certain age. If you aren’t being looked at by leagues by the ripe age of 22, chances are you won’t become a professional hockey player. A certain amount of luck is needed in making the NHL as well.
But you are a young, hotshot player who has the ability to play in these leagues. So lace up the skates, put your laptop down, and get back on the ice. Because there are so many other players doing the same thing as you right now.
Which path will you choose?
Make sure to look out for the next posting of Global Puck, as I sit down for an interview with Topeka Roadrunners goaltender Ryan Snowden of the NAHL.
Dylan is the Global Puck columnist for Good Night, Good Hockey. You can follow Dylan on Twitter @10phillyphan.