[Over the course of drinks last night, my esteemed colleague Mr. Cam Charron and I had a bit of a discussion about the eccentric concept of 'the assist', and he suggested that, as he was writing on that very topic this very day, it might be edifying and synergistic if I did so as well. So I am.]
Another one of Lester Patrick’s magnificent PCHA hockey innovations, assists were invented to give credit for playmaking. As a defenseman, Patrick had long been frustrated with the fact that hockey credited only the scorer despite the fact that so much of the work of moving the puck up-ice was often done by the guy who passed to the scorer. So, in 1913, when the PCHA introduced the forward pass, they also introduced the assist. Like shifts and lines, forward passes and assists were one of several PCHA concepts that pushed the theory and practice of hockey slowly away from a game based on individual puck-hoggery and towards a team-first, share-the-biscuit ethic. By giving credit for playmaking, players were encouraged to try to set up a teammate to score rather than simply trying to score themselves.
The NHL didn’t start crediting assists until 1918, and when they did, they did so according to the conservative PCHA standard. Because forward passing was still illegal, and later very heavily restricted, through most of the1920s assists were awarded at a very low rate of between .4 and .6 per goal. However, in the late 20s, the League began eliminating restrictions on passing, and accordingly began a series of experiments in assist-counting that would continue for nearly a decade.
Our modern concept of the assist evolved over the course of the 1930s, but it was not a direct evolution. Many of the provisional redefinitions of the assist seem to have been designed to limit the awarding of assists to direct passing. For example, from 1930 to 1936, the NHL allowed the awarding of up to three assists per goal, but didn’t allow passing between zones, which meant that on the rare occasions that all three assists were awarded they were the result of a successful continuous breakout or cycle. In 1936-37, they reduced the maximum number of assists to two, and also added the new provision that assists could only be credited for passes made in the offensive zone, meaning an assist in 1937 was significantly harder to earn than it is today.
Correspondingly, throughout the 30s and early 40s, assist-counting rates and practices fluctuate dramatically with changes in definition. In 1942-3, the NHL finally settled on the two-assists-from-anywhere-on-the-ice-system, but the standard for crediting them was still higher and left up to the discretion of the scorer- assists weren’t automatically given for touches. In the mid-40s, an average of 1.132 assists were credited per goal, suggesting that scorers were operating under a more restrictive definition, probably (although I don’t know this for sure) one that demanded a more direct playmaking contribution to a goal.
Over the next fifteen years, though, the definition of an NHL assist slowly softened. Assists-per-goal rise a little bit every year from 1945 to 1957. This seems to reflect the slow evolution and application of the modern definition, wherein the last two players to touch the puck are credited no matter how minor, incidental, or accidental the contact. From 1957 to the present day, the NHL’s assists-per-goal rate has remained remarkably level, hovering between about 1.65 and 1.75 every year. The system is, if nothing else, consistent.
However, as my esteemed colleague Mr. Charron points out, it’s also arbitrary. As Dellow noted in his breakdown of Karlsson’s assists, or as this fine fellow describes, a lot of assists are granted for actions that happened long before the goal and made no direct or intentional contribution to it. Given the fairly consistent application of the standard, it is probable that most players benefit more or less equivalently from the awarding of assists for non-playmaking actions- that is, Karlsson is probably not unique in getting points for a lot of plays that we might not consider, in and of themselves, all that remarkable. What Dellow identified (in the absence of the second part of his post, which may or may not have made the case more clearly) is likely a systemic problem with assists themselves rather than with a particular player. But it raises a valid and important question: why is hockey giving out points for non-playmaking gestures?
The obvious answer is that, most of the time, the non-playmaking gesture was still a good gesture. If Crosby makes a nice pass to the corner of the crease, and that pass is the foundation of sustained possession between two other players that eventually leads to a goal, he may not really have contributed to that goal, but, well, he still made a nice pass. If Karlsson makes a good clear out of the D-Zone that his forwards eventually process into a goal, well, it was still a good clear. Both players have made the right decision, executed it well, and thereby maintained their team’s possession. Possibly, in doing so, they’ve helped to create the space necessary for their teammates’ offensive creativity. The two-touches system of awarding assists seems specifically designed to capture and reward these kinds of small but laudable actions.
I think that’s why they were so important in hockey from the fifties through the seventies, and why back then the two-touches theory was perfectly reasonable. Remember, for these generations hockey games were not always recorded and seldom broadcast, and when they were, the quality was low and replays difficult. Hockey, without the benefit of digital resolution and slow-motion, is a complex swamp of collaboration between players. Everyone knows, then as now, that there are lots of small, solid, unglamorous plays that go into the creation of a scoring chance, but for most of hockey’s history, the accurate identification and counting of such plays would have been excruciatingly difficult and impossible to verify. In that limited milieu, the best possible way of rewarding the tiny contributions that create “a climate where scoring chances are more likely to happen” (quoth Charron quothing Dellow) is the two-touch assist system.
But that was then and this is now. Now everyone has access to high resolution digital recordings of games that we can speed up or slow down at will. One of the best things about being born in this generation of hockey is that we- all of us, not just the coaches, not just the broadcasters- can see the game better than ever before. Which means we shouldn’t need to use assists as a sort of vague proxy for both playmaking and some random percentage of good gestures. We don’t have to count only the last two things we saw from memory alone. We can go to the tape. We can count all the things.
The small good gestures that sometimes turn into non-playmaking assists happen hundreds of times in a game, and most of them don’t turn into goals. The player who makes that simple perfect play makes dozens of them, and every now and then, by pure luck or the whims of the hockey gods, one becomes a goal. Sure, second assists cover some of them, but we’d know and value his contribution more fully and more accurately if we counted all the simple perfect plays regardless of whether they end in goals. And, in fact, there are analysts trying to do just that- breaking down players according to puck battles won and lost, passes completed and intercepted, zone entries successful and unsuccessful, shot attempts and scoring chances generated. That some journalists reject these kinds of advanced statistical projects while still considering non-playmaking assists legitimate is a rarely noticed but indefensible form of hypocrisy.
So I present the question, speculatively but sincerely: would it be good for hockey if the NHL went back to crediting assists only for passes that directly set up the goal, while looking to other stats to capture valuable non-playmaking contributions? Assists, then, would become a more precise metric that measured a specific and highly essential offensive skill: the ability to set up a shooter in scoring position. There would be fewer, true, but they would be more meaningful, and might give the non-specialist fan a better read on the difference between an elite set-up man and an intelligent, diligent support player- between a driver of scoring and a driver of possession. Both, of course, are essential to a good team, but they’re different skill sets. Right now, our system of assist-counting blends them together in a stew of accident and chaos that, ultimately, reflects neither ability clearly. We have the technology to separate them. Maybe we should try it.
Info on the history of assists was taken from The Patricks: Hockey’s Royal Family, by Eric Whitehead, The Annotated Rules of Hockey, by James Duplacey, and QuantHockey.