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When Statistics Lie: Hockey's "Second Assist"

By November 26, 2006

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Statistics tell only part of the story of a hockey game, and some numbers don't tell us anything useful at all.

The Second Assist is hockey's phony stat. Given that it is accorded the same value as a goal - one point in a player's scoring total - it might be the most spurious number in all of sport. Consider a couple of examples:

In a recent game against the Rangers, the Pittsburgh Penguins cashed in on a couple of five-on-three power plays. Here’s how the play unfolded on the second of those goals:

  • From the New York blueline, Sidney Crosby passes the puck to Mark Recchi, at the edge of the goal crease.
  • Recchi tries a cross-crease pass to Evgeni Malkin.
  • Pass doesn’t connect.
  • Puck slides to the boards and bounces back to the blueline.
  • Sergei Gonchar collects it.
  • Gonchar passes down low to Recchi again.
  • Recchi shoots.
  • Goaltender makes the save.
  • Recchi whacks at the rebound and scores.

The scoring line reads: PPG - MARK RECCHI, Assists: SERGEI GONCHAR and SIDNEY CROSBY.

How does Crosby earn his assist? After his last touch of the puck, the Penguins lost possession, retrieved it, passed, shot twice and saw the goaltender make a save before finishing the job.

A few days later, the Tampa Bay Lightning beat Atlanta on an overtime goal:

  • Defenseman Cory Sarich hands the puck to forward Vaclav Prospal.
  • Sarich goes directly to the bench.
  • Prospal skates into the Thrashers' zone.
  • He protects the puck against the boards, giving his mates time to complete a line change.
  • Martin St. Louis arrives and gathers the waiting puck.
  • He takes it to the net and scores.

The scoring line: MARTIN ST. LOUIS, Assists: VACLAV PROSPAL and CORY SARICH.

Sarich wasn't even on the ice by the time the goal was scored. Yet statistically, he gets equal credit with Prospal and St. Louis, who created the play.

While some second assists are well-deserved, many are handed out on the flimsiest of pretences. And the fact that a second assist and a goal have the same value in a player’s point total is laughable. The rulebook says:

When a player scores a goal, an “assist” shall be credited to the player or players taking part in the play immediately preceding the goal, but no more than two assists can be given on any goal.
That's vague enough to mean just about anything.

Which raises an interesting question: How different would the NHL scoring race look if all those bogus assists were eliminated?


November 27, 2006 at 12:28 pm
(1) Tappi says:

The point made is valid, but there are also many times that a third assist is warranted. Sometimes a player can make a great play and because two other players grazed the puck with their sticks, never altering the final outcome, they get the assists instead of the guy who made the play happen.

November 29, 2006 at 3:51 pm
(2) Sandi says:

Wow! You do learn something every day!
I had no idea that’s how that was done.

November 29, 2006 at 6:49 pm
(3) John Lake says:

Dam my career was built on being a third assist specialist.
Please move on to no touch icing. Its a good cause

April 10, 2007 at 7:17 am
(4) rpower says:

Thangs for writing about the second assist and sheding light on truly the most inflated stat in the NHL today. This so called second assist has propelled the “Kid” all the way to the top this season. I wonder how hard Maurice Richard or Gordie Howe had to work to win the most points? Probably had to score more goals big surprise. I remember in those days a second assist was handled much differently and the league was very particular. It had to be bang bang bang to make two assists on a given goal. But the league needs more points showing so hey whatever works

September 26, 2007 at 7:37 pm
(5) Rob says:

Your entry omits one huge fact: in both examples, the opposing team never had possession of the puck. Had the goaltender in the first example controlled the puck, and then Recchi scored, it would have been unassisted. The second example is the same – one does not need to be on the ice at the time the goal is scored to be credited with an assist – they just need to be the last or 2nd last player to touch the puck prior to the goal scorer, and without the opposing team having controlled in between. In the event there are not two attacking players that touched the puck before the goal scorer, fewer assists are awarded.

It is not a sham, the assists are not phantom. Every goal is reviewed, and sometimes, when warranted, initial scoring (g, a, a) is changed later in the game. If you want a game with no second assists, go to the Russian Superleague. The NHL has had them since well before Gordie Howe started playing, and they aren’t going anywhere.

October 2, 2007 at 12:18 pm
(6) Andy says:

I’m not sure where you get this idea that a goal and an assist are equal. They are both considered “points”, but goal stats are kept separately and given much more weight. A player with 50 goals and 100 points will be considered more important than a player with 30 goals and 70 assists.

It is well known among hockey fans that the second (and sometimes even the first) assist can sometimes come easily, and they weigh that mentally in assessing the meaning of the stat. But those who consistently rack up assists are rarely flukes. I’m sure you could find a few iffy ones among Joe Thornton’s 92 assists last year, but there can be no doubt that this stat demonstrates his importance, even though his 22 goals puts him in a tie for 87th among scorers. This is the value of the stat.

How could you possibly make it more meaningful? The only thing I can think of is having some sort of judging panel to decide whether the player truly “assisted” the play, but this wouldn’t be workable.

To remove it entirely would remove an important gauge of performance. Often enough it’s the second assister who does the real heavy lifting in a scoring play. Some of this is also captured in plus/minus but it is the combination of all these stats that give you information about a player.

December 3, 2007 at 11:05 pm
(7) tanner says:

Dude cry about it. If you took 2nd assists away, the point scoring race would be the same. The same great players who are at the top will still be there, because they are in on most of the plays which is why they are at the top of the list. The only difference is that everyones total points would be less. and sometimes yes an unlikly 2nd assist is given as you mentioned. But a lot of the time the 2nd assist is legit. Andddd those 2nd assists directly effected the play. So why should thye not count? Even if Cory Sarich is on the bench at the tiem of the goal, he still passed the puck to Prospal. Or did he not?

October 5, 2008 at 10:57 am
(8) Adam says:

If you start taking away assists or downgrading their meaning or importance, the puck hogging you’ll see will be unbelievable. Passing will become a lost art and it will be every man for himself.

March 31, 2010 at 11:34 pm
(9) Andrew says:

The second assist should be eliminated, only the goal pass should count. its so easy to get a second assist, just pass it to one of the scores and without an effort, you got an assist.

April 21, 2011 at 11:05 am
(10) Petesburgher says:

When did they start recording 2nd assists? You can’t discount what Sid has accomplished throughout his young career b/c of a few anecdotes like this.
I am sure that all scorers get a few cheapies.

I would say that if take a shot from the point and the puck goes off of your teammates skate, shoulder, face … that the shooter deserves more credit for the goal b/c he put the “energy” into the puck.

August 3, 2011 at 9:51 am
(11) Mike says:

On the surface, the assist rules can seem a bit ingenious however the assist rule actually make sense and promotes good hockey and unselfish play. Imagine that there were no assist in hockey or that assists are awarded as in the NBA. This would result in a lot of selfish play with players more interested in their personal statistics than in winning games. Player contracts are heavily influenced by a player’s stats. Better stats = more money. The assist rules encourage moving the puck on the ice and creating scoring opportunities for your team. A coach I know counts assists as 2 points and goals as 1 point. This results in more passing and better team play. It’s easier to stop a single player than it is to stop a full 5 player line that is actively moving the puck on the ice. Team play always beats individual play in any sport.

December 20, 2011 at 11:41 am
(12) Mike P says:

Second assists have been recorded since 1932. In case anyone was going to argue that the players in the good old days had to work harder for their point totals.

March 9, 2012 at 12:27 am
(13) J says:

I agree that sometimes second assists can be week. Although, sometimes they can big the biggest part of the play. Say a player gets the puck and skates it in and takes a shot on net and then one of his teammates gets the rebound and then there is another rebound and another player knocks it in. If that first player didn’t skate it in and take the initial shot, that goal would have never occurred.

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