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Re-evaluating the assist: Part I

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(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Getty Images

One thing that has always bothered me about hockey's counting stats is the assist. There is a perceived nobility about the assist. You unselfishly set your teammate up in a key scoring area for a goal. You kept a puck low for a teammate to tip in front of the net, instead of blasting it with the potential of taking out the glass from behind the net.

The assist, I see as more analogous to the "runs batted in" statistic in baseball, which is dependent on the players in the lineup to be on base before you can hit them in. An assist can be the result of a terrific play by your teammate, or, conversely, you can set one up in an ideal situation only to have the shooter rip the shot right off of the goaltender's crest.

It is entirely subjective and the assist depends a whole lot on the shooter, and a lot on your linemates' shooting percentages. Behind The Net tracks team shooting percentage for a player on the ice, but I have never seen a spot of analysis that isolated a player's individual shooting percentage from the team's shooting percentage. I'll call this "player independent on-ice shooting percentage".

As an example, Alex Burrows' on-ice shooting percentage at even strength this year was 10.8%. By removing Burrows' 1.47 goals off of 6.5 shots per 60 minutes from that on-ice percentage, the remaining four skaters on the ice put the puck in the net 8% of the time. The 2.8% difference was the largest on the Canucks this season. Essentially, Burrows was unluckier than his teammates in recording assists, and his shooting fortune inflated the point totals of regular even strength linemates Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

To illustrate this, I'll continue use the example of Henrik Sedin, since he's been the best Canuck set-up man, since, well, probably ever. From 2008 through 2011, Henrik has averaged 1.69, 1.94, 2.87 and 2.29 assists per 60 minutes. If you adjust his isolated team shooting percentage to the mean, you end up with 1.71, 1.90, 2.11 and 1.93 assists per 60 minutes. There is less variance in the second set of numbers and probably a better indication of Henrik Sedin's true talent. He was not more than half an assist worse in 2011 than he was in 2010 (although to my eye, I did not think he had as storng a season), but his on-ice teammates shot at 12.3%. By factoring out Henrik's shooting, we are left with nothing but Henrik's own performance as a passer, since some players are liable to bring their on-ice shooting percentages up with their own good luck. The closer numbers indicate Henrik Sedin's breakout year in 2009, his MVP year in 2010, and a slight dip in performance in 2011.

Another example here might be Brad Richards, who all of a sudden went from 67 assists to 47 in his contract year. He had 2 assists per 60 at even strength last year and dropped to 1.42 this season. Accounting for percentage adjustment, in actuality, he dipped from 'deserving' 1.55 assists last year to deserving 1.42 this season. Still a drop, but not one as significant as the surface would have you appear.

At the top of my Canucks wish-list sits a guy named Niclas Bergfors, unqualified by the Florida Panthers, who had an adjusted assist total of 1.54 per 60 minutes this season, but, playing alongside anonymous cast, he earned an actual total of 1.17. Last season, he had an adjusted/actual split of 1.36/0.99, so there was noticeable improvement in both categories despite his "sophomore slump" that will leave him unemployed on July 1st. Probably not for very long, however.

I looked at the assist leaders of players who played at least 60 games per 60 minutes of play. Here are the top 15:

1 - Henrik Sedin - 2.29
2 - David Krejci - 2.10
3 - Claude Giroux - 1.94
3 - Daniel Sedin - 1.94
5 - Anze Kopitar - 1.79
6 - Ryan Getzlaf - 1.78
7 - Mike Ribeiro - 1.71
7 - Shane Doan - 1.71
9 - Martin Erat - 1.70
9 - Mikko Koivu - 1.70
11 - Jason Spezza - 1.69
12 - Teemu Selanne - 1.66
12 - Brendan Morrison - 1.66
12 - Jamie Benn - 1.66
15 - Tuomo Ruutu - 1.61

Adjusted for teammates' shooting percentages, you wind up with the following top 15. I added the player's original ranking next to him:

1 - Ryane Clowe - 2.05 (21)
2 - Claude Giroux - 1.98 (3)
3 - David Krejci - 1.90 (2)
4 - Henrik Sedin - 1.90 (1)
5 - Martin Erat - 1.77 (9)
6 - Daniel Sedin - 1.68 (3)
7 - Alexander Steen - 1.67 (83)
8 - Logan Couture - 1.63 (124)
8 - Benoit Pouliot - 1.63 (70)
10 - Joe Pavelski - 1.61 (20)
11 - Marian Hossa - 1.59 (63)
11 - Jiri Hudler - 1.59 (70)
13 - Blake Wheeler - 1.58 (79)
14 - Mason Raymond - 1.63 (48)
15 - Sean Avery - 1.57 (28)

[UPDATE: It was pointed out in the comments section that I did not include a player's goals when looking at his shot total, so I updated the Top-15 list. It is, for the most part, similar.]

As you can see, there is not much difference at the top of the list, save for the man who actually took over the top spot. Clowe's team shooting percentages progressed in the postseason and he earned 1.55 assists per 60 minutes in the playoffs, making everybody who picked him high in their pools (like me!) look smart in the process. His teammates' isolated shooting percentage leapt from 6.6% in the regular season to 9% in the playoffs, and it was probably more through the first two rounds when Clowe was putting up a bunch of points. Not only didn't Clowe's linemates fail to beat the goalkeeper, but he was also second in the league among forwards in having his teammates miss the net (Tomas Holmstrom was the "winner" here)

Torrey Mitchell, Logan Couture, Scott Gomez and Max Talbot were also similarily unlucky with their teammates failing to finish plays. In fact, a team looking to hit the salary cap floor might be willing to take on the ridiculous Scott Gomez contract and there's a good chance he turns his production around next season. As far as Canucks are concerned, we see a big drop with Christopher Higgins, Ryan Kesler, Raffi Torres, and, oddly enough, Mason Raymond. It's a curious addition, but it wasn't just Ryan Kesler whose points suffered from a lack of scoring wingers this season. It also cost his wingers about five assists from not having anybody on the other side to set up, which is the difference between a pretty forgettable campaign for Raymond and a few extra points that could have been useful for him come free agency.

Why does this matter? Mostly, I'm attempting to clear some of the noise behind the assist and I figure this is a good start, although this is, admittedly, a very crude beginning.