Prospect Ramblings: How soon will draft picks be in the lineup?

Hayden Soboleski




There are a lot of reasons to get excited about the NHL Entry Draft. Some of us enjoy the process of scouting players and following their development journeys, some of us are invested in teams and want to know who the faces of the future will be, and some of us just like winning our dynasty leagues by being the most prepared and most informed. 


The draft is the ultimate prospect hype producer for fantasy league participants and it’s easy to get drawn into the glamour of identifying electric talents that are worth a gamble in your drafts. On a more realistic note, however, most of these kids are not going to make it to the NHL. Even fewer will become as fantasy-relevant as their upside could allow. So before you go googly-eyed entering your league’s off-season draft, let’s take a look at the historical odds and numbers of players cracking the NHL out of the draft (and beyond). 


My arbitrary choice for games played in a single season to count a player is 20. If a player plays 20 games in a season, then they are either on their way to making it, or are actively blowing a chance to make it. Either way, this is enough to gauge fantasy value, good or bad.


Obviously not all players who hit 20 games in a season are equal. But the purpose of this study is to figure out wait times – if I had way too much free time I could also build in factors like height, weight, nationality, projected role, etc, but for now I have looked at players based on which round they were drafted in.


Here is a table counting how many players (per round each year) hit 20 NHL games in a season, and which season they did it in. In brackets I’ve included exactly which picks in those rounds I am counting (in case you want to dig deeper into my work or expand on it). D+1 is the first year after a player is drafted. So, as an example, in the 2015 box when I write 1 (72) in the Round 3 row, that means that 1 player (picked 72nd overall), hit the 20 NHL games threshold in their 4th season after being drafted (it’s Anthony Cirelli for anyone curious).


This is a lot to take in, so I’ve made a couple graphs below to try and present things in an easier-to-understand way.


What we see is that, on average, only ~3 players per draft step into the NHL right away. So unless you’re grabbing Hughes or Kakko in your fantasy draft, don’t bet on your guy “having a real solid camp and stealing a spot” (like we all tell ourselves in a possibility every year). That being said…statistically there will be one other player to hit at least 20 games, but I’m not going to make a fool of myself by guessing who.


We also see that roughly 20-30% of the players taken in the first round hit 20GP in a season by the second year after being drafted. These picks still tend to be very top-heavy (mostly in the first-half of the first round). Within 3 years of a draft, still only 50-65% of the 1st-round picks have made it. 


Looking at 2nd-round picks – only 4 players per draft make it to the NHL within 3 years. If the 2015 draft is any indication, that number goes way up if you give a player 4 years of your patience. You don’t have a choice in fantasy – you can either be quiet and patient until your player makes it or you drop them for nothing, making your entire drafting process null. Waiting on a player is worth it, but have to plan for realistic timelines and not get ahead of yourself.


If you look further down at 3rd round picks, it gets even bleaker.


To be even more of a downer, we can see that even though the number of players able to step right into the NHL is reasonably consistent from year-to-year, the number of playesr who reach the threshold in their second season is actually in decline in the four drafts from from 2014-2017. This could be due to the trend of teams taking more gambles on high-talent but r