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Is Sid the Best Playmaker in the NHL?

My recent piece looking at 1st vs. 2nd Assists and the possible impact on Hart Trophy consideration generated a deluge of emails, most expressing outrage over the mere suggestion that anyone other than Sidney Crosby should be awarded the MVP this season. In particular, there was a great deal of anti-Ovechkin rhetoric, including comments like "the last time he ever passed a puck was probably at the dinner table", and others making the point that players with lots of 1st Assists (goal-scorers like Ovechkin) tend to be shooters creating only rebound opportunities rather than actually setting up their teammates.

Today's table tries to answer that question with hard facts. How often do players get assists because of shots taken*?

This year, out of 6,336 goals scored, 1,105 involved an assist due to either a shot that was saved, or a missed shot that was then turned into a goal, roughly one per game. Among the current Top 30 NHL scoring leaders, Teemu Selanne leads the way with 10 such "Shot Assists", representing almost a quarter of his assist total. Crosby's nemesis, Alex Ovechkin, comes in 2nd with 8, as does Colorado winger Andrew Brunette.

On the opposite end of that scale we have Alex Tanguay, Marc Savard, and Sidney Crosby leading the way with the fewest Shot Assists - all gathering less than 4% of their helpers this way, and for Tanguay, he has none at all so far this season!

Let's take a look at the assertion made by some that players with lots of 1st Assists tend to get them from teammates banging in rebounds. For well known snipers like Selanne and Ovechkin, that would certainly seem to hold true, as they both have relatively high 1st Assist percentages (although still a minority), whereas puck distributors like Crosby and Savard have low numbers. But there are a few noteworthy exceptions; take Alex Tanguay, for example, who has the highest 1st Assist percentage on this list (73.1%), without a single one coming after a shot. While he may not score 30 goals as many Calgary fans expected this year, he's certainly doing a good job fanning the Flames (lame pun definitely intended).

What this measure gives us is a quantitative descripter of "playmakers" vs. "scorers". The next question is, which one is more valuable? Certainly, the playmakers embody that tireless sports cliche, "making their teammates better" by getting them the puck in prime scoring situations. Don't forget, however, that shooting and creating rebound opportunities can be a very good thing, as shots off of rebounds are much more likely to score. To me, the interesting point in this table is the difference in style that is shown within positions, such as Crosby/Savard (playmaking centers) vs. Lecavalier/Briere (scoring centers), or on the wing where you have a stark contrast between Tanguay and Brunette. This kind of stuff can provide fodder for countless line-combination discussions, such as "is a scoring winger like Brunette or Ovechkin best served by having a crease-banging winger on the opposite side to go after rebounds?"

So there you go, Crosby fans - affirmation of Sid the Kid's playmaking abilities to go along with his Hart Trophy candidacy. I know if they gave the award out based on "fan reaction to perceived slights", he'd probably win in a landslide!

*Here's the criteria I used: I combed through the play-by-play files, looking for goals that were immediately preceded by a shot (or missed shot), and that shooter got an assist on the goal. There are some minor problems with this data - for example, I found an instance where one player shot the puck, a goal was scored a second later, and he didn't get an assist (even though two other teammates did), and we miss out on assists where a Blocked Shot is involved. If Player A shoots the puck and it's blocked by an opponent (Player B), but then a teammate picks up the rebound and scores, Player A will get an assist, but the play-by-play file won't tell us that Player A shot the puck first - only that Player B made a block that preceded the goal. By and large, however, this should capture the vast majority of situations where a player picks up an assist due to a shot, rather than a passing play. It's also possible that a player takes a shot, picks up his own rebound, and then passes to another teammate for a goal - that would get counted in this analysis as a ShotAssist. All in all, however, these situations account for a small minority, and these numbers are good enough to help us delineate the different kinds of assist makers. In addition, there a few cases where the official scoring for a goal changed after the fact, causing a mismatch between the "A" column and the sum of the "1st Asst" and "2nd Asst" columns. Those are noted by having the "A" column shaded pink, and for each player involved, their totals are off by one assist.

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