As the 2006-7 NHL Regular Season heads into its final weeks, it's time to consider the contenders for some of the major awards. In order to add ammunition to your own barstool-style arguments over the Hart Trophy for league MVP, I thought I'd provide some statistical fodder for the debates to come.
One topic that occasionally comes up in these sorts of discussions is the relative worth of 1st vs. 2nd assists. While everyone can come up with examples of goals where the 2nd assist involved more effort or skill than the 1st assist (i.e. a great pass that sets up a shot that's stopped, but then someone taps in the rebound), the general agreement is that 1st assists are generally "worth more" than 2nd assists, with the tricky question being, "how much so?" I won't get into that issue today, but rather want to take our NHL scoring leaders and see how they're doing in terms of 1st vs. 2nd assists.
The table below takes the current Top 30 NHL scorers based on conventional scoring, and splits out their assists between 1st and 2nd, using details from the Play by Play files. I've also shown the percentage of overall assists which are "1st Assists", as well as a Modified Points column that shows what individual scoring would be if only goals and 1st assists were counted, as was the case decades ago, when hockey helmets were a rarity and the term "CBA" meant somebody just had their ABC's backwards.*
Viewed through this perspective, Sidney Crosby's dominance is somewhat diminished. Four of the five 40-goal scorers (Lecavalier, Heatley, Ovechkin and Hossa) pass ahead of the youngster in the modified standings, with perhaps the most notable jump made by Alex Ovechkin, based on the fact that nearly three-quarters of his assists are of the more substantial variety. The biggest fall on this list is by Joe Sakic, who collects the highest proportion of 2nd Assists. While Crosby's overall point lead in the conventional standings is basically due to the level of 2nd Assists he's generated, it's not like he hasn't put up stellar numbers overall. His 41 1st Assists are second-most in the league behind Joe Thornton.
Granted, this covers only one aspect of the MVP debate, and there are also off-ice considerations that will likely come into play, given the precarious state of the Pittsburgh franchise through much of the season. Devoted Penguins fans have been faced with the threat of losing Crosby and his wunderkind teammates like Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal to relocation, and instead they're relishing a happy ending not just to that story, but also the team's first playoff berth in years. Combine that with the endless stream of Gretzky comparisons, and the hockey writers might find the "Crosby saving the Pens and winning the Hart while a teenager" story too hard to resist.
What this picture shows, however, is that maybe the offensive leadership in the NHL is more even than it would normally appear given the standard statistics.
*Just to be clear, I don't think 2nd assists are worthless, just that providing this level of detail adds a new dimension to the scoring debate. Heck, without 2nd assists, this stay-at-home beer league blueliner wouldn't have many points at all...