The second assist
One gets a first assist by spotting the sniper and getting him the puck. It seems reasonable to conclude that, on balance, there is more value generated in a first assist than in a previous touch of the puck.Oh those poor woebegone second assists, always the centre of attention.
There was a discussion last week on local sports radio about how the NHL calculates individual points, and what the relative merit of a second assist really is. Is it worth as much as the first assist? As much as a goal?
The answer, from this corner anyway, is no, probably not — and especially not at even strength. On the power play, with the puck moving at a more frenetic pace, I can see the value in a second assist, which could come by way of a bang-bang passing play or as the defenceman's point shot is batted a few times before going in.
Behind The Net has first and second assist data for all situations, but what I first want to present here is a look at the top 20 players in points per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play.
It's a fairly elite group (these figures are from before Sunday night's games):
First of all, and it needs to be said somewhere other than on Oilers blogs, Shawn Horcoff is having a terrific season.
Secondly, Martin Erat would be among the league's scoring leaders if he could do anything on the power play.
Anyway, those are both asides. What I really am getting at (as you maybe can tell from the title of this post) is the first and second assists, and how they factor into how much a player produces at even strength.
For the most part, these top producing players have a pretty standard number in the second assists column, somewhere between 0.55 and 0.85 per game. But there are outliers, and I think their presence says something.
Take a look at the second assists figure for Sidney Crosby and Matt Cullen.
Crosby's measly 0.26 per 60 minutes is less than such luminaries as P.J. Axelsson, Jozef Stumpel and Raffi Torres. Cullen, meanwhile, is the second-highest forward in the league in the category, next to only Jason Arnott.
Who, of Crosby and Cullen, is driving their teams' offence the most? Which one is more likely to be either (a) scoring the goals or (b) passing to the player who bats in a goal?
That answer's easy of course. But what do the points per 60 minutes leaders look like if we dump the second assist? Where do Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk and Joe Thornton fit in then?
No more Cullen, who falls to 63rd. Legwand is at 47th and Stillman 40th. On the flip side, Savard jumps from 33rd up into the top 20.
On the whole, however, not a huge difference when it comes to the leaders, who for the most part make up the majority of their points from goals and first assists anyway. Notable players who have a high percentage of their assists from first assists: Crosby (83%), Cole (92%), Savard (86%), Daymond Langkow (85%), Martin Rucinsky (83%), Ryan Smyth (91%), Thomas Vanek (90%) and J.P. Dumont (89%).
Who gets the most second assists? Mainly defencemen, which is why this goals + first assists measure really only works for forwards. The highest ranked defender in the category would be Pavel Kubina, who's 183rd.
Nick Lidstrom, for instance, doesn't have a single first assist at even strength this season, but is first overall in second assists.
Any talk of taking them out of point totals, or somehow limiting their weight, would hurt defenders more than anything. A lot of great breakout passes, like those Lidstrom fires up the ice every game for the Red Wings, are reflected in the assist department.
If you're a playmaking centre, getting that first assist is definitely a bigger deal than piling up second ones, but as a defenceman, the majority of the best plays you'll make are second assists (or uncredited passes, come to think of it). That's part of the reason why I find the on ice/off ice statistics Behind The Net offers so useful: Just because you don't end up with a lot of points doesn't mean you're not assisting your team's offensive production.
Just look at San Jose's Doug Murray, who has only four assists in 25 games this season, but who, when he's on the ice, sees his team's production go from 1.95 goals per 60 minutes to 4.30, which is 10th best in the NHL.
Maybe the question's not: 'Why don't we do away with second assists?' but 'Who's getting the third and fourth ones?'
Just a thought.