There’s always been something that bugged me about hockey.

No, it isn’t the appropriate split of hockey-related revenue between the NHL and NHLPA, it’s something far more general and less specific to the actual problems facing the National Hockey League.

It’s the assist. I never really “got” the assist. Sure, I’ve used assists, and by proxy, points, as a marker for a hockey player’s offensive talent, but it seems rather simplistic and arbitrary. Why “two” assists? At what point did the hockey establishment decide that “two” passes before a goal was a perfectly acceptable way of conveying participation in the play?

A lot of television analysts, a lot of whom would probably shy away from the use of modern analytical tools such as Corsi or TOIQualComp, use numbers quite often in their assessment of players. It was a big thing this week when Taylor Hall got his contract extension, analysts were using Jordan Eberle’s point totals to argue that he ought to get a similar deal.

Eberle has 119 points in 147 NHL games, or 0.81 per game. Hall has 95 points in 126 NHL games, or 0.75 per game. The argument being that Eberle is as valuable, if not more valuable, than Hall and deserves a similar contract based purely on his point production. But that contains a lot of assists. Arbitrary assists that I don’t believe tell too much of a story.

It’s troubling to find the history of the assist online. I do know that there used to be a single assist awarded for goals, but it was discretionary. In 1918, the NHL’s first season, there were 342 goals scored, but just 142 awarded assists. Harry Cameron, Cy Denneny and Reg Noble, who led the league with 10 assists each that season, scored a combined 83 goals. The NHL officially didn’t start recording the assist until 1919 however, so I imagine those 142 assists were awarded on the discretion of sportswriters covering the game and not officials.

In the 1921 season, Jack Darragh of the original Ottawa Senators was the first player to record more assists than goals—11 goals and 15 assists—as officials began to evidently become less discretionary. 1930 seems to be the year that the assist truly took over and became a factor in the scoring race: Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers was second in point scoring with a 26-goal, 36-assist campaign, beating out Dit Clapper’s 41-goal, 20-assist campaign by a single point.

It seems like is was the tool of a sportswriter, the assist a noble concession to a forward joining the rush but who didn’t score. In the days before the forward pass, it was probably more important, since players gained the zone by stick handling up ice, and credit had to be given in some form to a player who did all the work on the play.

But why now? What is the value of the assist in today’s game other than “well, people have always been tabulating assists?” I think that the game has changed enough and that so often, players are given credit on a particular goal—a strong outlet pass, a defiant screen on a powerful point shot—but not ‘official’ credit.

mc79hockey, on the Edmonton Oilers’ ability to get scoring chances when Hall is on the ice:

I think if other guys on the ice are good at getting the puck going the right way, Taylor Hall’s scoring chance numbers will be better than if they weren’t. Even things that aren’t scoring chances, like breaking the cycle in your own end and getting the puck heading the right direction, or keeping a puck in at the blueline, or consistently winning battles…even if these things don’t lead directly to scoring chances, they create a climate in which scoring chances are more likely to happen.

That said, there isn’t a person who takes stats seriously who wouldn’t love to have some sort of a system that accurately meted out individual contribution. It is exactly what you want to find if you’re interested in poking around with this stuff.

I like the idea behind tabulating individual scoring chances, and for a few games last season I also awarded, on a discretionary basis, a “scoring chance assist” defined as a player who made a deliberate play to set up a teammate for a clear scoring chance. These were handed out rarely and usually accounted for half of the total chances.

But one of the problems I see with assists is that it arbitrarily measures production and falsely assumes that no more than three teammates can create a successful offensive play. The game has changed a lot since 1930, and teams work together as units rather than a collection of individuals. In the 30s, there was a wider gap in skill between players, that’s less pronounced now.

Teams work together as units to establish a breakout, to provide support in the neutral zone, to gain the offensive zone, and even in the chaos of the attacking zone, players and defencemen have structured roles. If Jordan Eberle scores more points than Taylor Hall, it doesn’t change the fact that the Oilers are in better position to score more goals with Hall on the ice rather than Eberle. It means Eberle plays closer to the net and doesn’t do those little things described above.

I’m not suggesting to ignore the assist entirely, as, like all numbers, it tells a certain story of what happened when a player was on the ice, but immense value is placed in assist and point numbers which seems rather arbitrary to me. Traditional assist and point tabulations I don’t think count up and split the contributions evenly, and that all needs to be put in a certain context.