As part of my periodic musings on matters arcane and trivial, my attention wandered to the concept of the second assist in hockey. It has, of course, become embedded in the fabric of NHL scoring, counting just as much as a goal or a "first assist" in terms of points. The Art Ross Trophy is just as available to a player who piles on second assists as it is to the most prolific goal scorer in the NHL. Somehow, that just doesn't seem right. So what is this bizarre creature? What does it show? Why does it rank as the functional equivalent of a goal?
Although there are lots of paraphrased versions of what (and what does not) constitute an assist, it's always better to go directly to the source. The NHL standard for awarding assists is found in Rule 78.3, which provides:
Crediting Assists - When a player scores a goal, an "assist" shall be credited to the player or players (maximum two) who touch the puck prior to the goal scorer provided no defender plays or has control of the puck subsequently. Each "assist" shall count one point in the player’s record. Only one point can be credited to any one player on a goal.
After reviewing the definition, a few things strike me as odd. First, there is actually no distinction between a "first" and "second" assist. There are simply a maximum of two players who can receive assists. Next, there is absolutely no element of causation attached to the definition. In other words, an assist does not involve any requirement that the player's ation have any direct or indirect contribution to the goal. Finally, note that the player(s) to be credited with the assist need only "touch" the puck -- not "play" the puck, not "possess" the puck -- just touch it. Intentionally, unintentionally, or otherwise. In contrast, however, in order to break the assist chain, a defensive player must "play or control" the puck. Interesting.
Let's deal with the whole causation issue first, as this seems to me to be the single biggest logical fallacy in the whole construct. As a lawyer, I deal with causation virtually every day, and there are some interesting parallels. Of course, as noted above, there is no causation element in Rule 78.3, which is in itself absurd. So, statistically, a gorgeous tic-tac-toe play is just as impressive as a puck that bounces off the rear-ends of two offensive players, plops down on the stick of a third guy, who knocks it in. Seriously?
Now I'm willing to concede that a player who directly passes the puck to the player scoring the goal merits an assist. No issue there, but note that I reference "passing" the puck -- not just touching it. I realize it's the NHL, and the small rink makes for all kinds of crazy bounces, and I also understand that the rule is intended to be absolute, so that no discretion comes into play. But in so doing, the NHL has effectively gutted any meaning from the number. While you can certainly argue that this flaw exists with respect to "first" assists as well, the logical canyon really drops off when you get to the second assist.
Let's consider an automobile accident occurring at a four-way stop intersection (known in central Ohio as "Intersection Roulette") Harry stops at the stop sign first, and then proceeds into the intersection. Joe runs the stop sign in his direction, and collides with Harry. Pretty cut and dried, right? Joe is the bad guy, and his actions caused the accident. Now, assume the same facts, but say that Harry was texting as he proceeded into the intersection, and could have avoided it were he paying attention. A little murkier, eh? Joe is still probably at fault here, but Harry might have a piece of the action. Finally, assume the same facts, with the twist that Joe's lawyer argues that if Harry had not dawdled at breakfast, he would not have been at the intersection at that time, and the accident would never have occurred. While perhaps a factually true statement, the problem is that there is nothing wrong or culpable about Harry taking more time at breakfast. So, while it is factually a true statement, it is also entirely irrelevant.
The second assist is akin to the latter situation. While the truth of the second player touching the puck may be undeniable -- of what relevance is it to the ultimate goal? If a second assist can be awarded to a goaltender who merely drops the puck to a defenseman behind his own net, a defenseman who merely moves the puck down low from the point, or a forward who has a misdirected puck carom off his hindquarters, of what use is it.? Keep in mind that we are talking about a statistic here -- not just an idle topic of conversation. Not only is it a statistic, but the "assist" construct as a whole represents almost two-thirds of the scoring calculus. Consider a football example. When a touchdown pass is thrown, both the receiver and the quarterback are credited with a TD. Fair enough -- they were functionally equal partners in the result. However, if the NHL construct were in play in the NFL, the center would also get credited with a touchdown. He touched the ball, and if he doesn't get the ball to the quarterback, the TD doesn't happen, right? Again, totally true . . . and totally ludicrous.
To my mind, statistics must meet the acid test of bearing a direct correlation to a quality of performance that inherently belongs to the individual or team being evaluated. Shooting percentage, save percentage, goals against average . . . these are all objective measures that directly pertain to an individual's performance. As with any team sport, they are impacted somewhat by the actions of others, but over time are reliable and repeatable indicia of performance. With this in mind, I scoured the past five seasons worth of NHL statistics of first and second assists to determine whether any pattern or correlation to performance could be found. (For those interested, NHL.com now tracks 1st & 2nd assists, and has the data back to the 2010-11 season. Go to Statistics, Enhanced, and filter on Skater Scoring)
What did I find? Virtually nothing. No matter how you slice or dice the data, there was precious little correlation to anything. However, there were a few trends that were observed:
- The second assist is a much friendlier statistic to defensemen than the first assist. Over the five years, just about half of the top 15 in the category were blue liners. In contrast, on one defenseman appeared in the top 15 in first assists. Again, not surprising given the defensive role. It does nothing, however, to resolve the issue of causation.
- The second serves very much as a derivative statistic. While there are fewer repetitive names in the top 15 over the five years than you see in first assists or goals, some names keep re-appearing. Nicklas Backstrom, Derick Brassard, Henrik & Daniel Sedin, Kris Letang. Of course, the Sedins have that Evil Sedin Twin Mojo that is indescribable, but very real. Letang spends a good portion of his ice time with guys named Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Backstrom does the same with a guy named Alex Ovechkin and Brassard has shared a line with Rick Nash for the better part of the past five years. Otherwise, there was no discernible rhyme or reason to the numbers.