Origins and Changes
Young fresh faces have always been one of the best ways to rejuvenate a team. These days, most teams rely heavily on the NHL Entry draft for their infusion of youth, but it wasn’t always that way. Older players, such as Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe had to be invited to training camps and impress there in order to have a chance at an NHL career. Some teams even made sure to hold on to promising kids from young ages on their own sponsored junior teams, like the Montreal Jr. Canadiens.
The NHL Amateur draft was first introduced in 1963 as a way for players who weren’t signed onto junior teams to be assigned to teams. In that sense, when the draft was first introduced, it was more of a “picking the best out of all the remaining players after the best have been signed” situation. As a result, most of these players were ones who slipped through the cracks, but had become desirable for teams by the time they had hit 20 years of age (the youngest draft-eligible age at that time). The draft was held at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, but at that time, the draft picks were kept secret until a period of time after the draft.
The junior team sponsorship deal kept on until 1968 when the idea was shelved and the draft grew dramatically from 24 players picked in 1968 to 84 players picked in 1969. This draft is often known as the first modern NHL draft. At that time, the Montreal Canadiens had special rights to French Canadian players and picked two French Canadians before anyone else picked anyone instead of picking a player of any nationality for their first two round picks. Because teams were allowed to “pass” during any round, the draft went on for 10 rounds.
Montreal’s rights to French Canadian players would be rescinded and the draft would continue as normal, but with competition from the WHA. Players would often be drafted by both leagues and have to decide which team to go to. However, the WHA’s draft allowed for players as young as 18 to be drafted, so they earned the rights to players at an earlier time. In response, for the 1974 draft, the NHL was granted permission to draft underagers (18 and 19 year olds) in the first two rounds of their draft. Still, some players chose the WHA over the NHL. Real Cloutier was drafted at 9th Overall in the WHA’s draft in 1974 and began playing in the WHA immediately. After a dominant second season in the WHA, he was drafted 9th overall by the Chicago Black Hawks in 1976. Cloutier remained with the Quebec Nordiques in the WHA until the league folded and he followed the Nordiques into the NHL. Following the 1974 draft, the NHL returned to drafting players 20 and older.
In 1979, as the WHA closed its doors, the NHL changed the rules of their draft from an Amatuer Draft to an Entry Draft, as a result of the eight WHA players available to be drafted. It hardly seemed fair to call it an amatuer draft if such professionals were draft-eligible. The NHL batted around the idea of lowering the draft age and postponed the draft until August while they deliberated about it before finally deciding to lower the age of eligibility to 19 for the 1979 draft. In 1980, this was lowered even further to 18-years of age.
The 1980 draft was significant in that it was the first NHL draft to be open to the public. It was held in the Forum in Montreal and also featured another size explosion, jumping from 126 in 1979 to 210 players in 1980. From there, the draft began to become a bigger and bigger deal to fans. In 1984, the draft was televised for the first time and in 1985 it was held in a location other than Montreal for the first time, in Toronto. From 1987 to 1991 restrictions were placed on drafting 18- and 19-year olds, limiting them somewhat, but those were removed and to this day, the age of eligibility rests at 18 years old.
Facts about the Draft
- The 1979 draft class had an average point total of 286 points and average game total of 479 among 126 players picked. These are the highest totals in NHL history and to top it all off, a stunning 81.7% of drafted players played at least 1 NHL game, the most of any draft class in NHL by far, with the second best being the 1980 draft with 62.9% of draftees playing an NHL game. Again, do consider the difference in number of players drafted in each draft (1979 – 126 players, 1980 – 210 players).
- The 1987 and 2002 draft classes share the dishonour of having the lowest percentage of players to make it to the NHL with just 35.7% of players making the big leagues.
- There have been four different drafts to feature four goaltenders drafted in the first round, but three of the four were in the 30-team era of the NHL whereas the 1994 draft featured four goaltenders back in a 26-team league. The four goaltenders were Jamie Storr (7th), Eric Fichaud (16th), Evgeni Ryabchikov (21st), and Dan Cloutier (26th). Of these four, Cloutier had the longest career at 351 games.
- Tommi Salmelainen was the first European to be drafted when he was drafted in 1969 by the St. Louis Blues in the 6th round at 66th overall. 1969 was the first year in which Europeans were eligible to be drafted.
- Helmuts Balderis, a Latvian, was the oldest player to ever be drafted into the NHL when he was drafted at 238th overall in the 1989 NHL draft by the Minnesota North Stars at the age of 36. He played in 26 NHL games and scored 9 points as a forward.
- Ray Martynuik is the highest draft pick never to play an NHL game. He was picked 5th Overall in 1970 by the Montreal Canadiens and never made it beyond the AHL. The 1996 draft was close as Alexandre Volchkov was picked fourth overall and narrowly missed this mark by playing in three NHL games. More recently, Michael Dal Colle matches Martynuik at 5th overall without an NHL game, but at 20 years old (nearly 21), he’s still likely to eventually play some NHL hockey.
- Gord Kluzak of the 1982 draft played in 299 games, the lowest total of any player picked first overall (1969 onward). Nail Yakupov, the 1st pick in 2012 has 292, but will likely pass Kluzak. All first picks from 2014 onward are also lower, but they are obviously still quite young and have careers ahead of them.
- Jonathan Ericsson and Brian Elliott share the distinction of being the lowest picked players to play an NHL game at the 291st pick. Interestingly, both have been more than fringe players and played significant roles on their respective teams.
- Brian Lawton became the first non-Canadian (and first American) ever drafted first overall in the NHL draft in 1983 when he was drafted by the Minnesota North Stars. The North Stars also picked the second American to be first overall when they picked Mike Modano five years later.
- Rick DiPietro was the first goaltender picked first overall in the draft when the Islanders picked him in 2000. Only Marc-Andre Fleury has followed suit.
- Mats Sundin became the first European to be picked first overall in 1989 when he was picked by the Quebec Nordiques. Roman Hamrlik became the first non-Scandinavian European player picked first overall when he was picked by the Lightning in 1992.
- Ilya Kovalchuk became the first Russian picked first overall in the 2001 draft when he was picked by the Atlanta Thrashers.
On top of my usual sources, I also used the following sources for this article: