Now that the trade deadline has come and gone, NHL rosters are relatively stable heading into the playoffs. This is as good a time as any to look at how NHL teams’ rosters are built, or more precisely, how NHL players are acquired on NHL teams’ rosters.
I pulled all the depth chart information on CapFriendly.com of all 31 NHL teams to see how squads are constructed.
Before we get into the numbers, let us first take a high-level look at the different scenarios in which players can be acquired. There are some nuances and complexities to some of these scenarios, but I am going to keep it at a high level.
NHL Entry Draft – For those unfamiliar, the NHL Entry Draft is the amateur draft that is very similar to all other major sports in North America. NHL Entry Draft eligibility is generally for North American players between the ages of 18 and 20 and for non-North American players between the ages of 18 and 21.
Free Agency – There are three most common ways a player can become a free agent:
- NHL player’s contract expires, and he does not sign an extension with his current team, therefore enters free agency and can sign with any team.
- A player is not drafted during the years of draft eligibility and therefore becomes a free agent.
- A player is drafted but does not sign an entry-level contract with the owner of his rights before those rights expire. The expiration of rights varies by where that player is drafted from (two years from draft year for junior players, four years for non-North American and NCAA players).
Trade – Pretty self-explanatory, but this is where a player is acquired in an exchange with another team.
Waivers – The waiver process is a little more complex. This is where a player has met a certain amount of playing experience, and his team wants to send that player to the minors (or taxi squad this season). In this scenario, another team can claim this player to acquire him. Acquiring players through the waivers process is relatively uncommon.
Expansion – Stating the obvious here but this is where the player was acquired in the NHL Expansion Draft. It’s important to call out that players that were acquired as part of the Expansion Draft via side-deal trades are designated as “acquired via trade” and not as Expansion Draft selections.
Shea Theodore is a good example, as he was traded from Anaheim to Vegas on the condition that Vegas would select Clayton Stoner in the Expansion Draft. In this scenario, Theodore would be acquired via trade while Stoner was acquired via the Expansion Draft.
Building through the draft
The media narrative is that teams are built through the NHL Entry Draft. If you look at the top 10 players in the league by points, nine out of 10 of them are on the teams that drafted them. Only New York Rangers forward, Artemi Panarin, was not drafted by his current team. Without digging much further, this tells me that the best way to acquire the best players in the league is through the NHL Entry Draft. But what about the rest of the team?
Of the 20 active players on each roster, I isolated all the players that were drafted by their current team to determine what percentage of the roster was acquired via the NHL Entry Draft.
The Vegas Golden Knights only have one active player on their roster that they drafted since they joined the league in 2017. It traditionally takes many years for drafted players to crack an NHL roster and with only four NHL Entry Drafts since Vegas joined the league, there has not been enough development time to expect more drafted players on the roster. Vegas also traded two of their players from the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom, for Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, respectively. Both Suzuki and Brannstrom are regulars in the NHL and likely would have been playing for Vegas had they not been traded.
The second most common way to acquire players is via trade. Roughly 31% of the players on rosters league-wide were acquired via trade, versus 40% acquired via the Entry Draft.
The percentage of players acquired via trade is almost an inverse relationship of the percentage of players acquired via the NHL Entry Draft with Montreal and Vegas near the top.
The last major way that teams acquire players is via free agency. Roughly 26% of currently rostered players were acquired via free agency.
Acquiring players via free agency gives a mixed bag of results. The number of elite players that reach free agency every year is relatively small, and situations where you can build your team around a free agent are very rare. Usually, free agent acquisitions are more complementary pieces to an already strong core of players. The top free agent acquisitions from the 2020 offseason were Taylor Hall (BUF), Alex Pietrangelo (VGK), and Torey Krug (STL). Those three players are higher-end talent, but are not be the best players on their new teams.
There are only six active players on NHL rosters that were acquired via waivers. Waiver claims are rare because if a player is put on waivers, then this player is perceived as having a low value to their current team. That team is willing to essentially give this player away for nothing. However, in a salary cap crunch period like what the league is experiencing now, it could be that organizations need to create cap space for other players. There could be a slight increase in waiver claims over the next few years as teams try to juggle their salary cap situations.
Finally, back in 2017, Vegas acquired 29 players via the Expansion Draft. They would flip some players via trade and let others go to free agency. Of the 29 players selected, only five players remain with the team: William Carrier, Marc-Andre Fleury, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Brayden McNabb.
Wrapping it all up
It will be very interesting to see how the Seattle Kraken roster is built in the first few years of the franchise. Certainly, there will be a large portion of the roster that comes directly from the Expansion Draft via their official selections or trades associated with that draft. Additionally, with the current salary cap situation facing the league, some quality free agents could be available for the Seattle Kraken since they should have much more cap space than other teams.
It has been well documented that the Golden Knights hit the jackpot in year one of the franchise and put themselves on a path to being a legitimate Stanley Cup contender every year since joining the league. This allowed them to trade away some of their developing first-round Entry Draft picks, which bolstered their position to make deep postseason runs now but may hurt them in coming years.
We should not expect Seattle to have the same immediate success as Vegas, as we at Sound Of Hockey believe the Kraken will more than likely hold onto their top prospects.
When you run into Jim Benning next, let him know that “Usually, free agent acquisitions are more complementary pieces to an already strong core of players”. Not sure he know that yet. I enjoyed reading this article with the acquisition types broken out by team. Good job, John!