What to expect at the 'decentralized' 2025 NHL Draft (2024)

LAS VEGAS — A few seconds before announcing his team’s first-round selection on Friday, Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin had something to get off his chest.

“This place,” he said from the stage at Sphere, “is pretty cool.”

He wasn’t wrong. If that was indeed the end of the NHL Draft as a hectic, one-of-a-kind pro-sports convention, it went out in style, surrounded by the planet’s largest LED screen.

That made the 2024 draft different. Next year’s, though, will bring massive change; the league plans to ditch the “centralized” model, in place since 1963. What does it all mean? How has the situation changed in the last six months? The Athletichas you covered.

GO DEEPERInside Sphere: The NHL Draft experience from inside the one-of-a-kind venue

What would draft decentralization entail?

The easiest way to explain it: The NHL’s draft will start to look a lot more like its analogs in the NFL and NBA.

The days of 32 teams sitting at 32 tables on an arena floor — with GMs pacing, texting and covering their mouths while they talk — will be over. So, too, will be the opportunity for nearly every NHL or NHL-adjacent professional to work, network and socialize in the same place for a few days each June.

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Instead, we’ll see the adoption of the “war room” system, where front office members, scouting departments, coaching staffs and hockey ops gather together and make organization-defining decisions from the comfort of home.

In this case, “home” might be a practice facility, an arena or a14,000-square foot mansion with a skateboard ramp. In the NFL, whichever spot your typical team picks, everyone will congregate near the team’s “big board” as their pick approaches, said Doug Whaley, who ran drafts as the general manager of the Buffalo Bills from 2014-17.

When the team makes its selection, they tell their on-site representatives at the draft venue, who then write the selected player’s name — or, if a pick is traded, the specifics of the deal — on a card. When that card is handed to a league representative, the pick becomes official. The card is then passed on to an NFL executive, who records the pick and shares the card with whoever is making the announcement.

On Day 1, that’s commissioner Roger Goodell. On Day 2 this past April, the gig went to either a current star or franchise legend for each respective picking team. On Day 3, for Rounds 4-7, it was a mix of league reps, fans and community leaders.

Under the NHL’s current system, teams announce their own selections. In the first round, that typically means a general manager climbing some stairs, walking across a stage and speaking into a microphone. Maybe they’ll thank the host city or a retiring colleague, or say hello to everyone attending their official draft party at, say, a generic sports bar near their home arena. On Day 2, with deputy commissioner Bill Daly acting as something of a pick wrangler, the process moves more quickly.

The most relevant fact for NHL teams, though, might be that most NFL teams only send two or three team reps to the draft itself. When Whaley was with Buffalo, it was typically a video coach along with another person or two from the organization.

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“And all they’re really doing,” Whaley toldThe Athletic,“is telling us picks before they get announced on the media side and writing down our picks, making sure they’re right.”

That’s indeed what the NHL is planning for the new model; a 5,000- to 10,000-seat venue (rather than an arena more than twice that size) where prospects are greeted by Bettman and a team rep on the draft stage.

Why did the NHL decide to decentralize?

Here, we’ll focus on one specific reason: Money.

“A strong majority” of NHL teams,according to The Athletic’s Chris Johnston, voted in October to move away from the in-arena, convention-style format. A league memo sent out in preparation for the vote specifically mentioned the possibility of “significantly” reduced club travel and lodging costs.

It’s easy to scoff at that reasoning. It might be justified, too; plenty of NHL teams in 2024 are billion-dollar operations. Look at your average team’s staffing, though, and think about how much it’d take to send everyone to Las Vegas or Nashville or Montreal for a few days. The Pittsburgh Penguins, for example, list nearly 70 people. Receipts for that will hit six digits before you blink.

Beyond that, the draft isn’t much of a money-making opportunity, per se, for the host team. Plenty of cash winds up in the pockets of local hotels and bars — hello, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge — and the host venue sells tickets and concessions, but the juice, in most instances, isn’t worth the squeeze.

Not coincidentally, the NFL has found a way to pull the best from both worlds. All 32 franchises get to save individually, with one each year (along with the league office) printing money as the host city; the NFL Draft has turned into an outdoor party, with 775,000 people attending April’s event in Detroit.

What to expect at the 'decentralized' 2025 NHL Draft (2)

The start of night two during of the 2024 NFL draft at Campus Martius Park in Detroit. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

What are the pros of decentralization?

Aside from saving a whole bunch of money, teams will cut out a whole bunch of stress and scheduling challenges. As the Stanley Cup playoffs seem to eat a larger chunk of the calendar with each passing year, the league’s most important player movement window has grown even more condensed.

In less than a week, NHL teams will have drafted seven rounds’ worth of players; made crucial decisions on buyouts and RFA tenders for their own players; negotiated with their own pending UFAs; and signed deals with others on the first day of free agency. In the middle of all that, they’ll have squeezed in what amounts to a three- or four-day business trip-slash-social event, often on the other side of the continent

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That doesn’t leave much wiggle room; the last two drafts alone have seen major travel delays caused by thunderstorms (Nashville) and a mechanic union strike at Canadian airline WestJet (Las Vegas). Nobody wants to be stranded in a hotel, least of all an NHL general manager with mere hours remaining before the start of free agency.

Replacing that logistical powder keg with a controlled, hometown atmosphere was a major draw, according to several front-office members.

“We do travel a lot all throughout the year, so it can’t be a bad thing, being back home, setting up a war room and bringing everybody in,” Red Wings assistant general manager Kris Draper said. “All the scouts and everybody setting up shop is gonna be something that we’re looking forward to as well.”

“In between picks, they can restock their boards, talk about something else or get something to eat instead of always being (on the arena floor),” Whaley said.

It’s not just about comfort, either. The NHL has had an in-person draft every year since 1963, aside from the COVID years of 2020 and 2021. Teams are looking back on those drafts as test runs.

“Maybe if you do 10 more (decentralized drafts), you could find flaws in it,” Hurricanes assistant general manager Darren Yorke said, “but I do think as a business decision, being able to communicate and having access to more technology should be beneficial.”

What are the cons of decentralization?

Scouting staffs (and their families) will miss out on a nice trip, for one. Heading to a spot like Vegas or Nashville is treated, in plenty of cases, as a reward for a job well done.

It’ll also theoretically lead to fewer trades, since decision-makers will no longer spend two consecutive days crammed into a relatively small space — but then, blockbuster draft-weekend trades have been on the wane for years.

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The league will also have to deal with the end of its pseudo-convention. They could take cues from the NBA, where the post-draft (and free agency) Summer League has turned into a prime networking opportunity.

The most consistent thing to come up as a negative, though: Scouts and execs will no longer get to bear witness as 18-year-old kids watch their dreams come true.

“At the end of the day, this is all about (the prospects.)” Yorke said. “And seeing their families and seeing the moms and dads — they put so much effort into trying to help their son get to this point, you don’t get to see that reaction the same way.”

Is the NHL definitely going through with it?

Exiting the weekend, it seems less of a guarantee. We saw in October just how quickly the status quo can change. Specifically, there was plenty of chatter on the draft floor about running it back at Sphere. Who could blame the NHL for going down that route again?

What’s most likely, though, is that the league proceeds with decentralization while keeping its options open. Either way, the model will be tweaked.

“I understand the need for change,” saidOttawa amateur scout Don Boyd, who has been attending NHL drafts for decades. “We have to evolve and we can’t always just be the same.”

Ian Mendes contributed reporting to this story.

(Top photo of the draft floor during the 2024 NHL Draft: Eliot J. Schechter / NHLI via Getty Images)

What to expect at the 'decentralized' 2025 NHL Draft (2024)
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