It seems like there are so many paths to the NHL in hockey - juniors, college, prospects, AHL, the draft, free agents, etc. Could you help make some sense of that? Thanks for your hockey wisdom 😊
Yes, you are correct. I’ll try, although the intricacies of contracts (free agents, etc) is v. complicated. I’ll try to give it some coherence.
A player who is from North America and is 18-20 years old is eligible for the draft (if you’re European you’re eligible for the draft if you’re entering the league for the first time at any age). Now, being drafted doesn’t mean “you now play for the team that drafts you!” it means that they have dibs on you which they may or may not choose to exercise. A huuuuuuge percentage of drafted players never go on to play a single NHL game.
Some players who are drafted go directly to a big-league NHL contract. This is a pretty small percentage of the total players drafted. These are your first-round picks, the guys who’ve been tagged for hockey stardom since their teen years, the guys who’ve had scouts watching them for awhile. Most of them played in the junior professional leagues or the junior amateur leagues. Most of the players that have big name recognition fall into this category. Most players who are drafted (if they make it into the NHL system at all) begin in the minor leagues, playing first for their drafting team’s AHL or ECHL affiliate. They may or may not ever get called up to “the big show,” as the NHL is called by the players. Some play in the minors their whole careers.
Some players who are drafted then go on to college and play there. They can leave college or graduate before joining their team or their team’s minor-league affiliate. If you watch college hockey, it’s pretty standard for them to mention which NHL team owns the rights to various players. Amusing side-note: it’s not uncommon for a player in college to have his rights traded before he’s even played. A guy playing hockey at Boston College who was drafted by, say, the Coyotes, might find that by the time he graduates his rights are owned by the Canucks.
If a player goes undrafted, after they age out of the draft they become a free agent, and can sign with whoever. A good example of this is Conor Sheary, who currently plays for the Penguins, but who was undrafted. He went to college, then signed with Wilkes-Barre (the Pens’ AHL team) and was eventually offered a contract by the Pens and he now plays on their first line as Sidney Crosby’s most dependable winger. Not bad for a guy who went undrafted, right?
(Note for CP readers: this is how Jack’s career went. He wasn’t drafted, went to college, aged out of the draft and became an unrestricted free agent who was then wooed by several NHL teams before signing with the Falconers.)
Some players, if they aren’t drafted or signed into the NHL system (minors or majors) play overseas for awhile in their professional leagues. Auston Matthews did this (he’s a rookie for the Leafs and one of the top contenders for rookie of the year this year). He’s an American player (the US players tend to have slightly different career trajectories than the Canadian players, there’s a way bigger junior professional component for Canadians, although US players can also play in the Canadian junior pro leagues) and played junior amateur for US Hockey, but before he was drafted he chose to play pro in Switzerland for a year to get experience before he became eligible for the NHL draft.
There are a bunch of routes to the NHL. Some but not all of them:
Junior amateur –> Drafted –> NHL
Junior pro –> Drafted –> NHL
Junior –> Drafted –> AHL –> NHL
Junior –> Drafted –> College –> AHL/NHL
Undrafted –> College –> Sign as a Free Agent –> AHL/NHL
Undrafted –> Free Agent –> Pro somewhere overseas –> AHL/NHL
European player –> Pro overseas –> Drafted or UFA –> NHL
And this doesn’t remotely cover all the ways that players can get exposure as teenagers or collegians, all the various teams/leagues/etc they can play with where they can come to the attention of scouts.