Interesting Numbers: Primary Assists in the NHL

Image courtesy of CBS Sports.

As part of a new series for Ice Nation UK, I will be providing brief insights into the numbers behind the game, hoping to point out interesting or surprising trends, patterns or results.

First up: who are the most effective 5v5 playmakers in the league this season?

Thanks to Hockey Analysis, we can take a look at statistics that might help answer this question.

Most people agree that the primary assist is, on the whole, more valuable than the secondary assist.  That is not to say that secondary assists are useless, and in several cases they took more skill and made a bigger contribution to the goal than the primary assist.  For the most part however, the correlation year-to-year for primary assists is greater than that of secondary assists, according to Eric T of Broad Street Hockey.

As an aside, Jonathan Willis at the Cult Of Hockey disputes the notion that there is almost no correlation between the rate of secondary assists from one year to the next, showing far greater correlation, though still noting that primary assists had a “stronger repeatability”, and hence likely require greater skill on the part of the player.

The following table displays this season’s top twenty players (min. 300 minutes played) at producing primary assists, and their numbers for last season.  We are using “primary assists per 60 minutes”.  Expressing a statistic as a per 60 minute rate as opposed to per game removes the benefit or hindrance of ice-time.  The time on ice per game expressed is rounded to the nearest 30 seconds, and is simply a rough guide.  Those players highlighted in green are those that managed to remain in the top twenty both last year and this.

First Assists 2013-14

  • Only four of twenty players retained their positions in the top twenty this year from last year.  That is quite remarkable.  Perhaps the lockout had a greater effect on the play of many than we thought, or the production of primary assists is simply not particularly repeatable year-to-year.
  • Surprise names on this list include Jesse Winchester, Silfverberg, Daniel Winnik, Ondrej Palat and perhaps even Gabriel Landeskog.
  • Winchester is a bottom-six forward who displayed some scoring talent in the NCAA, but has been a more defensive minded player in the NHL.  Still, he is producing solid assist numbers despite limited ice-time, and hence likely an underrated asset.  He didn’t even play in the league last year, and the year before posted a far more “realistic” 0.462 FirstA/60.  According to ExtraSkater.com he is receiving the benefit of an above average 9.3% on-ice shooting percentage, which is likely contributing greatly to the inflated numbers this year.
  • Silfverberg is in his first season as a Duck following the Bobby Ryan trade and is showing well, though he has cooled since a hot start partly thanks to injury.  His on-ice shooting percentage is quite high, but even so to produce that much with so little ice time is pretty impressive.
  • Winnik is one of the league’s premier pure-defensive forwards, but since joining the Ducks has put up some decent offensive numbers.  He’s making plays that result in goals at a massively improved rate this season (even if he’s not scoring many of his own), and unlike Winchester is not receiving an inflated on-ice shooting percentage.  The Ducks are getting great value from him this season.
  • Palat is in his first full NHL season, and has had the good fortune of having Martin St Louis as his most common linemate during the season.  That is a pretty soft landing, and he’s made the most of it, though again he has benefited from a hugely inflated 10.2% on-ice shooting percentage.  Whether he will be able to continue scoring at this rate is debatable, but the guy can clearly play with skill.
  • Landeskog had an awful season offensively in 2012/13, but is performing well this year.  His primary assist rate has trebled, likely partly thanks to his on-ice shooting percentage doubling from last year to a well-above average rate this season, something that isn’t likely to continue in the long run.
  • Kane, Tarasenko, Duchene and Getzlaf have all show remarkable consistency in keeping the primary assist rates very similar to last year, a testament to their skill at dishing the puck at an elite level.  The fact that Duchene and Tarasenko maintained similar rates yet weren’t in the top-20 last year shows just how much the list can fluctuate.

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