The NHL is the most prominent and elite hockey organization in the world. To enhance competition among current players and prospective players and to make the playing field even, the league’s administration limits each team’s capacity for players.
These rules for NHL team roster sizes typically dictate how many players can play in the league. Professional hockey, however, is a brutal game full of changes, injuries, and contract changes. These changes, which often happen suddenly, make authoritatively declaring a figure for the number of players in the NHL at any given time impossible. Therefore, the most straightforward answer for how many players play hockey in the NHL is that no one knows.
Nonetheless, the statistics on hand allow us to take an educated guess at the number of athletes skating, shooting, checking, and saving in the world’s most prestigious hockey league.
How Many NHL Players: Simple Answer/Roster Breakdowns
The first ballpark answer for the number of athletes officially in the NHL would be 736 players. The NHL requires its teams to submit rosters at each season’s start. Teams are allowed to list up to 23 players on those rosters. With 32 teams, simple multiplication would dictate that 736 players are in the league.
Statistics from 2019 would put this baseline number at 713 but these numbers do not account for the addition of the newest team, the Seattle Kraken, which expanded the league from 31 to 32 teams in 2020.
While 736 is a good starting figure, it also slightly oversimplifies the number of players allowed to play in each game. Seven hundred and thirty-six players are allowed as listed members of teams for the start of the season, but the league only allows teams to list 20 (the so-called “dressed list”) on the gameday roster. Among these 20, a team is allowed to list 18 skaters and two goaltenders.
The extra three players listed on the official season roster (usually called “healthy scratches”) are typically backup plans for injuries.
Based on the smaller roster of 20 per team, there are 640 players in the NHL, as there would be 640 active athletes as players in the games. To state a simple baseline then, there are between 640 to 736 players at any given time in the NHL. Hockey’s realities, however, often make this number more complicated.
How Many NHL Players: Complications
Though 640 to 736 players is a decent foundational statistic, it is not as precise an answer as some hockey experts may like. This number often fails to reflect the number of players officially listed on each roster at the start of the season. At the start of the 2021-2022 season, 721 player names stood on the official opening night rosters, 15 less than the threshold mentioned earlier.
In addition, in the 2018-2019 season, 903 players played at least one game.
The number of players in the NHL is fluid because teams have two more limits beyond the 20 and 23 player capacities. To cope with potential injuries or other unforeseen circumstances (such as a global pandemic), teams can sign contracts with up to 50 players and list up to 90 players on their reserve.
A team must sign at least 24 skaters and three goaltenders to contracts. The league allows team owners the choice to fill or leave the other 23 spots empty.
Players on the 90 player reserve list usually play hockey outside the NHL in settings such as college hockey or professional European leagues. These players are “reserved” for the team if the player should enter the NHL or if the team should somehow face a shortage of players.
If teams filled all contracts and all reserve list spots, that would expand the number of players to a potential range of 1600 to 2880. The amount of active players in the NHL is rarely this high because most teams choose not to fill all 50 possible contract openings.
Keeping spots open allows teams to be flexible in making trades, signing new players, and staying under any salary caps the league imposes. Teams often trade with other teams outside their “dressed lists” to better their ability to compete or develop their team and better be able to replace potential losses to injuries. This practice lets teams avoid trading or releasing valuable star players due to the league salary cap.
Though the NHL itself has yet to officially gather statistics on how many players played at least one game in the 2021 season, the number is also likely higher than 736. With players in quarantine or unable to play due to Covid-19 infection, teams often had to draw on their “healthy scratches” and extended lists of contracted players in order to put a team on the ice.
To make this matter simpler, league administrators allowed teams to carry a “taxi squad” of up to six players beyond the “dressed list.” With the virus continuing to spread, taxi squads and rosters themselves often changed. Therefore, unforeseen circumstances expanded the amount of “active” players who played in the NHL in the past two seasons.
Most Recent Numbers
It is difficult to say exactly how many players are in the NHL. Some statistics can nonetheless help to form a picture. According to statistics compiled by Spotrac.com and statistician Christina Gough, there were over 2115 active NHL players as of November 2021. This high number likely finds an explanation in a combination of factors. Hockey, as a fast-paced contact sport, has an inherent risk of injury.
Injury no doubt caused significant rotation of players, as it always does. This season, however, saw a higher constant shift of players due to viral infection and quarantine and the expansion of rosters with “taxi squads.” Teams frequently needed more players to make playing season games possible.
Therefore the number amount of active players within the league who played at least a game expanded past 903, as it was in the 2018-2019 season.
According to the same statistics compiled by Christina Gough, Canada had the highest number of active NHL players as of November 2021, with 953. The United States followed with the second-highest number of players at 562. Sweden, Russia, Finland, Czechia, Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia, and Denmark composed the rest of the top 10 most represented countries in the league.
Within these rankings, Denmark had the lowest number of active players in the top 10, with 17.
Though the NHL’s official season opening statistics from 2021 do not reflect the same volume of players, they show that the majority of players hail from these ten countries. Of the 721 players from season-opening rosters, 310 came from Canada and 190 from the US. Together these numbers compose about 69.4 percent of NHL players listed on season-opening rosters.
Much of the remaining 30 percent comes from the previously mentioned European countries while countries such as Latvia, France, and Austria represent much smaller numbers.
Final Range of Players Within the NHL
Given the minimum number of 20 players required on rosters among 32 teams, the absolute bare minimum of players in the NHL is 640. The maximum number of players given the 90 player reserve limit is 2880 players.
There is a vast difference between these two statistics, but the most recent numbers, such as those in the Christina Gough study, make it safe to assume that the number of active players in the league hovers around the 2000 mark. Due to the ongoing pandemic and continued practice of using “taxi squads,” it is possible this number will stay high for the time being.
Roster rules have not and will not significantly change and thus, the final range for active NHL players remains anywhere from 640 to 2880.