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.

Comments (20)

  1. I’ve got no problem with assists. If you start giving discretion, you’ll lose consistency. Yeah, a lot of secondary assists aren’t *that* crucial to the goal, but I’d rather tabulate that than have someone decide which ones count or don’t.

    • I agree. Like hits are currently.

      • Yep, hits are a perfect example of why you want a very clear, easy to follow standard like they have for assists.

        • I think first and second assists should be broken out. It’s not like, say, 20-26-16 is any harder to figure out than 20-42. In general, information is great, and let the observer decide what numbers are the more valuable.

          Obviously, without the goal scorer there’s no goal; even if the goal is a simple tap-in after some wizard skated through everyone and threaded some filthy saucer pass, he still has to make that tap or the wizard’s work goes begging.

          I think it’s important to recognize the set-up men some way. It’s not much of a concern to me that some of the assists are “cheap.” It balances out for the times that the pass is brilliant but the goalie comes up with a save, or the shooter bricks it.

          It would be instructive to count up created chances and converted chances (i.e., assists) and calculate the percentage and the chances per 60/min. A forward who consistently converts a better % of chances than his teammates is demonstrating superior finishing (either through good hands or getting into great position); a player whose passes are converted at a higher rate shows better playmaking ability. Of course, the player who creates his own chances shows value of a different sort. Those things are

    • Worth noting that there is some scorer bias with assists. Article is on behind the net, not finding it quickly though.

  2. I really don’t see the assist going by the way-side but it always has been a curious reward on certain plays. I agree that it is very arbitrary in some cases and has a real effect on salary negotiations as you’ve noted.

    A scenario in which a goalie passes behind his net to a defender who nails a guy in stride with a outlet pass that gives him a breakaway. The guy goes hmm… backhand shelf lets say, and the goalie gets credit for an offensive play.

    It would be interesting to follow a single player who is known for accumulating assists for a season to see how many of them directly resulted form a play that created an offensive chance – or simply were a result of having a goal scorer as a line-mate.

  3. Remember when goals counted as 2 points? Yeah they took that away, because it taught kids that goals are more important that assists.

    • That never happened. As far back as I’ve ever read goals have always counted for one point. I may be wrong, but I’m confident that goals never counted for 2 points.

      • In some sports, such as soccer and lacrosse, goals are given two points and assists one. They also only give away one assist maximum.

        In basketball, of course, the goals actually do count twice (or even three times) on the scoreboard.

  4. The real issue with assists to me is not with forwards, but defensemen, and a lot of weight is put on how many points a defenseman gets without thinking about the context in which he gets those points and just how valuable those points are to winning.

  5. Assists, like any stat are, imperfect. Sometimes a player will do something great and not get credit, other times he’ll get a throw-in assist because he started the breakout or whatever.

    Even advanced stats like Corsi or O-Zone starts/finishes can be skewed in either direction by things beyond the individual player’s control. I think the idea is that it more or less evens out and the statistical data at the end of the season is a fairly good representation of that player’s contribution. Be it, goals and assists, or Corsi and TOIQualComp.

    Cam, the “Team” aspect of goal scoring that you mention is sort of captured by +/-. And we know how imperfect a stat that is.

  6. This is opinion, not backed by statistical research:
    The value in Assists is aggregated, not individual.
    A particular Assist doesn’t mean much (the goalie touched the puck?).
    But, over the course of the season, total Assists give a good indication of who is driving the puck towards the net.

    • Agreed. I rarely see guys up in the league lead for assists that isn’t a good player who passes well.

  7. the assist is a huge factor on the power play, brett hull wouldnt of been as an elite player is someone wasn’t giving him that pass for his infamous onetimer, i disagree with this whole segment

  8. I’m not really sure what the point of this article is. We all know assists are a good way to measure a players performance. Trying to argue against it makes you sound like a re-tard.

  9. Assists are critical to goal scoring. In many cases, most cases, the goal of course wouldn’t have even taken place. IMO, assists are the play and are in fact more important. PLAY MAKERS are the guys with the real offensive talent and if they score goals too, which they usually do, all the better. Anyone can score goals if nicely set-up. The “tic-tac-toe” plays are one of hockey’s most entertaining and exciting plays to see. I see no problem in awarding two assists. Arbitrary assists by players don’t amount to alot over the course of the season. I get the point of the article but it is a team sport. Players are evaluated in many ways not just point production.

  10. Is there a site or has anyone looked at how the scoring race/history would look if second assists were removed?

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