Why Does the NHL Draft 18 Year Olds?

James Felix

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NHL Draft 18 Year Olds

The NHL Draft is a pivotal event in the world of hockey, where young talents from around the world are selected by NHL teams. 

One of the intriguing aspects of this process is the age at which players become eligible for the draft. It’s a question that often piques the curiosity of hockey enthusiasts and newcomers alike: Why does the NHL choose to draft players at the age of 18? 

In this blog post, we delve into the rationale behind this age eligibility rule and the impact it has on player development. 

We’ll explore how this timing aligns with a critical phase in a player’s journey towards professional hockey, ensuring they are primed to make a meaningful contribution to their respective teams. 

Join us as we unravel the significance of the NHL’s approach to drafting young, promising talents.

Age Eligibility in the NHL Draft

The age eligibility rules for the NHL (National Hockey League) Draft are as follows:

North American Players

Players born between January 1 and September 15 of a given draft year are eligible for that year’s draft if they turn 18 years old by September 15 of that year.

Players born between September 16 and December 31 of a given draft year are eligible for the draft if they turn 18 years old by December 31 of that year.

International Players

International players (non-North American) must turn 18 years old by September 15 of the draft year to be eligible for the NHL Draft.

It’s important to note that these rules may change over time as the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) negotiate and update their collective bargaining agreement. 

Additionally, eligibility rules may vary for special cases, such as players who have been granted exceptional player status in junior hockey leagues, which allows them to enter the draft earlier than the standard age requirements.

Why Does the NHL Draft 18-Year-Olds?

The NHL drafts players at the age of 18 primarily because it aligns with the typical age at which players have developed sufficient skills and experience to be considered for professional play. 

At this age, many young hockey players have progressed through various youth leagues and junior levels, gaining valuable experience and demonstrating their abilities on the ice.

Here are some reasons why the NHL Draft focuses on 18-year-olds

Player Development

By the age of 18, many players have spent years honing their skills through youth leagues, high school, and junior hockey. 

This age is often seen as a critical juncture in a player’s development, and they may be better equipped to handle the physical and competitive demands of professional hockey.

Scouting and Assessment

NHL teams have an extensive scouting network that evaluates players from a young age. 

By the time players reach 18, teams have a substantial body of work to assess, including performance in various competitions, skills development, and physical attributes. 

This allows teams to make more informed decisions about a player’s potential in the professional league.

NCAA and Junior Hockey Systems

Many players follow a development path through junior hockey leagues or the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) before entering the NHL Draft. 

The age of 18 corresponds with the end of many players’ eligibility in junior leagues or their first year of NCAA eligibility. 

This timing allows players to transition to professional play after gaining experience in these competitive environments.

Transition to Professional Hockey

At 18, players are generally considered mature enough to handle the demands of professional hockey, both on and off the ice. 

This includes the physicality of the game, the travel schedule, and the lifestyle associated with being a professional athlete.

It’s worth noting that there are exceptional cases where players may be granted “exceptional player status,” allowing them to enter the NHL Draft before the age of 18. 

This status is typically given to players who demonstrate an extraordinary level of skill and maturity at a younger age.

The Concept of Player Development in NHL

The Concept of Player Development in NHL

Player development is a crucial aspect of professional sports, including the National Hockey League (NHL). 

The concept of player development in the NHL refers to the process by which young and talented players are identified, nurtured, and groomed to reach their full potential as professional hockey players. 

Here are key elements of player development in the NHL:

Youth and Amateur Leagues

Many NHL players begin their hockey journey in youth and amateur leagues. These leagues serve as the foundation for developing fundamental skills, game understanding, and a passion for the sport.

Junior Hockey and NCAA

Players often progress to junior hockey leagues or choose the collegiate route through the NCAA. These environments provide more competitive play and additional coaching, contributing to a player’s overall development.

NHL Entry Draft

The NHL Entry Draft is a key milestone in a player’s development. Teams select players based on their potential, skills, and projected contributions to the team in the future.

Development Camps

NHL teams typically host development camps for their prospects during the offseason. 

These camps focus on skill development, fitness training, and introducing prospects to the team’s systems and culture.


Many players, especially those drafted directly from junior or college hockey, spend time in the American Hockey League (AHL) or the ECHL (formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League). 

These minor leagues allow players to further develop their skills against more seasoned competition.

Coaching and Mentorship

NHL organizations invest in coaching staff at various levels to provide guidance and mentorship to young players. 

Experienced coaches help players refine their skills, understand team systems, and adapt to the demands of professional hockey.

Strength and Conditioning

Physical development is a critical aspect of player growth. NHL teams have strength and conditioning coaches who work with players to enhance their strength, speed, agility, and overall fitness.

Skill Enhancement

Specialized coaches often work with players to improve specific skills, such as skating, shooting, and puck handling. 

This targeted approach helps players refine their techniques and become more well-rounded athletes.

Nutritional Guidance

Nutrition plays a vital role in the performance and recovery of athletes. Teams provide nutritional guidance to help players maintain optimal health and energy levels.

Life Skills Training

Life Skills Training

Player development extends beyond the rink. 

NHL organizations often provide life skills training to help players navigate various aspects of their personal and professional lives, including financial literacy, media relations, and community engagement.

Successful player development programs contribute not only to the individual growth of players but also to the overall success of NHL teams. 

Well-developed players become valuable assets to their teams, contributing both on and off the ice.

Age Eligibility in College vs. Junior Leagues in Hockey

In the context of hockey, players have different age eligibility criteria when participating in college hockey versus junior hockey leagues. 

The distinctions are significant, and players often choose between these pathways based on their development goals, preferences, and aspirations. 

Here’s an overview of the age eligibility in college and junior hockey leagues:

College Hockey

Players are eligible to play college hockey if they meet the NCAA’s eligibility requirements.

For Division I hockey, there are no specific age restrictions. However, players need to maintain their amateur status, and there are rules regarding their recruitment process.

College hockey typically attracts players who have completed high school and are seeking to combine their athletic and academic pursuits.

Players can enter college hockey at various ages, often starting at 18 or 19 after completing high school or spending time in junior hockey.

Junior Hockey Leagues (CHL, USHL, etc)

  • CHL (Canadian Hockey League): The CHL includes major junior leagues like the Western Hockey League (WHL), Ontario Hockey League (OHL), and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).
    Players in the CHL are typically aged 16 to 20. However, there are exceptional cases where players can join at 15 or continue to play at 21 under specific circumstances.
    Many players enter the CHL at a younger age, often as teenagers, to accelerate their development in a highly competitive environment.
  • USHL (United States Hockey League): The USHL is a top-tier junior league in the United States.
    Players in the USHL are typically aged 16 to 20. Similar to the CHL, there may be exceptions for players outside this age range under certain conditions.
    The USHL serves as a developmental league, preparing players for college hockey or professional opportunities.

Differences and Considerations

  • Amateur Status: College hockey places a strong emphasis on maintaining amateur status. Players intending to play college hockey need to be mindful of the NCAA’s rules regarding amateurism.
  • Development Pathways: Junior hockey leagues are often seen as a direct path to professional hockey, with players entering the NHL draft from major junior leagues like the CHL. 
    College hockey, while competitive, is also valued for its emphasis on education and the potential for players to be scouted by professional teams after completing their college careers.
  • Age of Entry: Players in junior leagues often enter at a younger age, aiming to accelerate their development in a more intense and competitive environment. College hockey players typically start a bit later, often after completing high school.
    Ultimately, the choice between college and junior hockey depends on the individual player’s goals, preferences, and developmental needs. 

Some players opt for the college route to balance academics and athletics, while others choose junior leagues to focus solely on hockey and potentially accelerate their path to the professional level.

Scouting and Evaluating Young Hockey Talent

Scouting and evaluating young hockey talent is a critical aspect of building successful teams in hockey, whether at the amateur, junior, or professional levels. 

Here are key considerations and processes involved in scouting and evaluating young hockey players:

1. Scouting Network

Establish a comprehensive scouting network that covers various regions and leagues. This may include local, national, and international scouts to identify talent from diverse backgrounds.

2. Attributes to Assess

  • Skating: Assess the player’s speed, agility, and overall skating technique.
  • Skill Level: Evaluate puck-handling, shooting accuracy, passing ability, and overall technical skills.
  • Hockey IQ: Assess the player’s understanding of the game, decision-making on the ice, and ability to read and react to different situations.
  • Physical Attributes: Consider the player’s size, strength, and physicality, keeping in mind the positional requirements.
  • Work Ethic: Observe the player’s commitment to training, practice habits, and willingness to improve.

3. Game Performance

Attend games to evaluate players in real-game situations. This allows scouts to assess how players perform under pressure and in different game scenarios.

4. Combine and Showcase Events

Attend combined events and showcase tournaments where multiple players can be observed in a competitive setting. These events provide opportunities to assess a large number of players at once.

5. Character Assessment

Evaluate a player’s character, including leadership qualities, sportsmanship, and their ability to work within a team structure.

6. Video Analysis

Utilize video analysis to review and assess players’ performances. This can be especially valuable for scouting players who may not be easily accessible for in-person evaluations.

7. Interviews and References

Conduct interviews with players and their coaches to gain insights into their work ethic, commitment, and attitude. Reference checks can provide additional perspectives on a player’s character.

8. Understanding Development Trajectory

Consider a player’s potential for development. Some players may have untapped potential that can be further developed with proper coaching and training.

9. Statistical Analysis

Utilize statistics to complement the scouting process. While stats alone may not provide a complete picture, they can be useful in identifying trends and potential standout performers.

10. Health and Injury History

Consider a player’s health and injury history. This includes assessing their ability to recover from injuries and their overall durability.

11. Age and Maturity

Consider the player’s age and maturity level. Younger players may have more room for physical and skill development, while older players may have a more developed game.

12. Adaptability

Assess a player’s ability to adapt to different playing styles, coaching philosophies, and team environments.

13. Regular Updates

Scouting is an ongoing process. Regularly update player evaluations to account for changes in performance, development, or other factors.

14. Collaboration with Coaching Staff

Ensure collaboration between scouts and the coaching staff to align the scouting process with the team’s playing style and needs.

Scouting is a dynamic process that requires a combination of expertise, experience, and a keen eye for talent. 

Successful scouting programs often involve a multidimensional approach that considers various aspects of a player’s game, character, and potential for future development.


Why does the NHL draft 18-year-olds?

The NHL drafts 18-year-olds to coincide with a crucial stage in players’ development. At this age, many have progressed through youth and junior leagues, honing their skills. 

The draft allows teams to acquire talented players at a point when they’re ready to transition to professional play.

Can players enter the NHL draft before turning 18?

In most cases, no. Players must turn 18 by a specified date in the draft year to be eligible. This ensures that they have had sufficient time to develop their skills and are physically prepared for the demands of professional hockey.

Are there exceptions to the age eligibility rules?

Yes, in certain cases. Players may be granted “exceptional player status” to enter the draft before turning 18 if they demonstrate extraordinary skill and maturity. 

These exceptions are rare and subject to careful consideration by the league.

How does drafting 18-year-olds impact their development?

Drafting 18-year-olds aligns with their peak development period. Players entering the NHL at this age often benefit from professional coaching, training, and competitive play, accelerating their growth. 

The transition to the professional level allows them to further refine their skills and adapt to the rigors of elite hockey.

Is drafting 18-year-olds unique to the NHL?

No, this approach is common in many professional sports. 

Drafting players at 18 ensures teams acquire talent at an age where players have demonstrated their potential and are better equipped to handle the demands of top-level competition, fostering a sustainable system for player development.

Wrapping Up

The NHL’s decision to draft 18-year-olds is not arbitrary but rooted in a comprehensive understanding of player development. 

This age marks a juncture where players have typically undergone years of skill development and are mentally and physically prepared for the rigors of professional hockey. 

It’s a strategy that not only benefits the league but also facilitates the growth of these young athletes. 

As the NHL continues to evolve and adapt, the age eligibility rule for the draft remains a fundamental element in ensuring the future of the sport is shaped by the most promising talents, providing fans with exciting prospects to follow and support for years to come.

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James Felix

As Head Boy's Ice Hockey Coach at Milton Academy, I foster teamwork, discipline, and skill development. Our success relies on dedication and refining tactics. We balance academics with on-ice performance, shaping well-rounded individuals. Together, we uphold Milton Academy's tradition of excellence in athletics and academics. LinkedIn

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