Scorers can award up to two assists for each goal and both goals and assists count the same as points. The secondary assist has been a point of contention as far as legitimacy is concerned since getting an assist just requires a touch of the puck prior to the goal. You can get one unintentionally and what's more is that it's not repeatable in the larger picture. I don't disagree with the findings; Eric T's post about it at Broad Street Hockey really makes the stasticial argument clear. However, that's in the big picture. I became curious about it at the player level.
Since Ilya Kovalchuk led the New Jersey Devils in assists in the season and playoffs combined in 2011-12, I decided to focus on him and review all of the assists he earned. I wanted to see how many secondary assists he got on his way to being the top scorer on the team last season, and I wanted to see how many were intentional. On this past Wednesday, I focused on his secondary assists. I discovered that 26 of his 57 assists were secondary assists and eight of those weren't from legitimate passes. As the title states, they weren't all cheap but he did benefit to a point.
Of course now that I looked at the secondary assists, it makes sense to focus a bit on his primary assists. He did have 31 of them: 26 in the regular season and five in the playoffs. Just as with the secondary assists, I reviewed all of them through the video at NHL.com and if there is demand, I'll put up the full charts with links to each one in a later post. Unlike those, all 31 were present in each video. As with the secondary assists, I looked at each one and determined whether a real, intentional pass was made, what situation it was made in, and who receive the pass.
Getting right to the point, I was surprised to find that eight of the 31 primary assists by Kovalchuk were not from passes. Yes, that's just as many non-pass secondary assists he had last season and playoffs. Surely, it's a coincidence; but it speaks to a larger point that even primary assists can be credited that way. That said, I wouldn't say these eight were cheap. Four of them were goals off rebounds created by a Kovalchuk shot. Three were deflected. Two in the traditional teammate-tips-the-shot method (and both on the power play too), and one where a defender dove to re-direct the shot only to have it slide to a wide open Zach Parise with a wide open net. The remaining one was that jam attempt that got the puck through Henrik Lundqvist's legs for Adam Henrique to slam it in and send the Rangers to the golf course back in May. I actually broke the goal down in this post, so you can see it and the play prior to that famous goal. It wasn't much of an attempt and it's arguably the "cheapest" of the bunch. And it really isn't a cheap group of assists. The other seven were just plays where he didn't score with his initial shot and someone did because of it. They just weren't intentional passes; that's different from what we saw from his secondary assists.
Just like his secondary assists, the majority of his primary assists were from intentional passes of the puck. The majority of those were cross-ice passes, where the puck was sent across the slot. Twelve of his 23 primary passing assists came that way. Five were on the power play, where Kovalchuk found a teammate open from the left side of the ice. The other seven were a mix of plays off the rush and those within the zone. They varied in difficulty, but the twelve demonstrate a strong skill at making and completing reads through traffic and in motion. As for the rest of the primary passing assists, four were to the center of the ice, three were up ice, three were drop passes to trailing teammates, and one was just a generic pass. There's some variety, but if you felt Kovalchuk made quite a few plays off cross-ice passes, then the video backed you up.
As far as when Kovalchuk made his assists, most of them were at even strength. Eighteen of his 31 primary assists came at even strength, including one empty-net assist in the postseason. Yes, these include the only two goals Anton Volchenkov scored in 2011-12. Eleven came on the power play, including one empty-net assist. Believe it or not, most of those power play assists were evenly distributed. Elias and Parise each scored three power play goals off Kovalchuk; Marek Zidlicky got two; and Dainius Zubrus and David Clarkson got one each. As beautiful as it was to see Kovalchuk feed Elias in an open spot across the ice at times, it didn't lead to too many scores. Completing the total, Kovalchuk got two primary assists in shorthanded situations: one to Elias and one to Zubrus. Given that Kovalchuk played in all situations, it shouldn't be surprising that he got some primary assists in each type.
It also shouldn't be surprising that Zach Parise was the most common scorer on Kovalchuk's primary assists.
Parise usually played with Kovalchuk at evens and they were both mainstays on the first power play unit. The opportunities for offense abound with two skill players playing with each other and they made it happen. Interestingly, Parise not only scored the most goals off of Kovalchuk's primary assists, but also the most non-pass assists too. Parise tipped a Kovalchuk shot, got a shot re-directed his way for a lay-up at the net, and banged in two rebounds. The interesting point is that their usual center, Henrique, was only assisted by Kovalchuk three times - and one of them was on the not-common-but-now-famous combo where Alexei Ponikarovsky lined up at left wing in overtime of Game 6 against Our Hated Rivals. Getting back to this list, Elias also stands out. I would have expected the six goals Kovalchuk assisted on would be mostly on the power play. I was proven wrong as three were on the power play, two were at even strength, and one was shorthanded. Again, as much as I enjoy it when Kovalchuk makes that diagonal pass to Elias on the power play, it didn't always lead to success. The rest of the group is varied, but do note that Kovalchuk contributed to seven goals by defensemen. That's pretty big considering the entire blueline contributed sixteen goals in the regular season (and three of them were by Kurtis Foster). Anton Volchenkov should be thankful in particular since Kovalchuk pretty much set him up with great situations for his only goals so far as a Devil.
In this review of Kovalchuk's primary assists, most of the passes Kovalchuk did make were not only intentional but they really put his teammates into really good spots. That seems obvious. It is a big reason why players pass the puck. But the key here is that Kovalchuk did this several times with several different players at many different times of the season. When a player successfully and intentionally does it 26 times for primary assists and 18 times for secondary assists between the regular season and the playoffs, it means two things. The first is that he has teammates who can finish plays which is good for the team. The second is that we can honestly say he is a playmaker. That's probably not the first or second term used to describe Kovalchuk, but an argument can be made based on this past season and playoffs.
When I see or read Kovalchuk is a scorer, I think about his superlative shot and the fact he can fire them in from wherever he wants. As well deserved as that is, it's becoming clear to me that it should also refer to his playmaking ability, which is very good. While not every single one of his primary assists was intentional, all but one (maybe two, considering a defender denied the shot) of non-intentional ones came out of attempts to score. His primary assists weren't inflated all that much. He may have got credit for some cheap secondary assists (eight non-passing out of 26), but the vast majority of his points in 2011-2 were legitimate. Based on watching all of these videos of primary assists, secondary assists, and goals, I suspect past seasons would be similar. He'd benefit from some luck like anyone else, but I doubt his points would be largely inflated. Am I going to go through all of Kovalchuk's scoring history? Well, no. But this past season showed that he really brought it in terms of production. Hopefully it'll continue whenever New Jersey takes to the ice - though the fact that a plurality of those primary assists going to Parise is a bit of a concern given he's elsewhere now.
Having read all that, I want to know what you make of all of this. Are you surprised that most of Kovalchuk's primary assists were from passes? How about that most of them went across the slot? Do you think Kovalchuk can contribute as many primary assists in the next full season and playoffs? Would you agree that Kovalchuk deserves to be called a playmaker based on how a majority of all of his assists came from passes? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Kovalchuk's primary assists in the comments. Thanks for reading.