NHL’s Entry Draft - A Legacy Extending 60 Years

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Held every year since 1963, the NHL Entry Draft involves the 32 teams of the National Hockey League vying to select top eligible players not already in the league. By design, non-playoff teams have the best chance of drafting the top overall picks. Selection order is determined by record, and those who fared worst in the regular season are favored in the draft.

Specifically, the first three draft picks are reserved for the 16 teams that did not make it to the playoffs, and their regular-season records rank these. For example, in the 2023 draft, the team with the worst record, the Anaheim Ducks, had an 18.5 percent chance of drafting the year’s top pick, Regina Pats’ center Connor Bedard. This was followed by the Columbus Blue Jackets, who had a 13.5 percent chance of top pick, on down to the Nashville Predators, who had a 0.5 percent chance.

The Chicago Blackhawks, third on the list, ultimately earned the top slot when the 14 numerically assigned ping pong balls in the lottery machine fell their way. As expected, they picked Bedard, who has been described as a “franchise-altering player.” The Ducks picked up big center Leo Carlsson in the second slot, and the Blue Jackets took speedy center Adam Fantilli in the third. While the rule did not come into play in 2023, there is one in-built safeguard: if the team with the lowest regular-season record does not receive one of the first three lottery picks, they are slotted fourth in the draft.

While the 2023 NHL Draft went smoothly, this has not always happened. In the 1974 season, when 18 teams were in the NHL, there was no defined duration to the draft. This meant that the draft ended only when each team had selected players in its own time. By the 11th round of this slogging process, “Punch” Imlach, the Buffalo Sabers general manager, selected Taro Tsujimoto, a Tokyo Katanas center in the Japanese Ice Hockey League. With international scouting not at the current level, a major issue arose in training camp when it was revealed that the Tokyo Katanas were nonexistent and that Imlach had pranked the league.

Another eventful draft came in 1991, with the Quebec Nordiques selecting Eric Lindros as the number one pick. Strongly opposed to playing for Quebec, Lindros refused to put on a team jersey, which is traditional on draft night. A holdout for the 1991-92 season, he was ultimately transferred to the Philadelphia Flyers in return for $15 million in cash, several players, and a pair of first-round picks who eventually materialized as Nolan Baumgartner and Jocelyn Thibault.

Interestingly, ice hockey’s greatest player, Wayne Gretzky, was never drafted in the NHL. This had to do with the fact that he was already a highly rated player in 1977-78, as a 17-year-old who nearly won the scoring title with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. With four years remaining until he would be NHL Draft eligible, Gretzky’s agent fielded calls from the NHL’s direct competitor, the World Hockey Association (WHA). Gretzky was ultimately drafted by the WHA Indianapolis Racers, who promptly sold his contract to the Edmonton Oilers. When the WHA and NHL merged in 1979, Gretzky’s contract was folded into the existing NHL structure, and thus, he never had to go through an NHL entry draft.