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The Straw that Stirs the Drink Part 1 - Reviewing Patrik Elias' Secondary Assists in 2011-12

Patrik Elias led the New Jersey Devils in assists and was seventh in the NHL in the 2011-12 regular season. This post focuses on the 20 secondary assists he had last season, how they were made, and who benefited from them.

Head up, puck in control, and Elias is about to make something else happen.  The tongue being out is optional, though.
Head up, puck in control, and Elias is about to make something else happen. The tongue being out is optional, though.
Christopher Pasatieri

When I had the original idea of looking at a player's assists, I immediately thought of one player: Patrik Elias. When I think of a "playmaker" on the New Jersey Devils, Elias is the first one to come to my mind. He's the straw that stirs the drink. He plays with his head up, his mind thinking one step ahead, and his passes are generally crisp and put where it should be most of the time. In my view, it's a big reason why his move to center has been successful (the other large one being the fact he's a really good defender), why he's usually on the side boards on power plays, and why players around him tend to play better. Just as I was about to begin, I discovered Ilya Kovalchuk had more assists across the regular season and the playoffs so I looked at his primary and secondary assists instead.

Strange as it may seem, but I enjoyed going through all 57 of his assists enough that I figured it would be just as interesting to do the same for Elias. He was no slouch when it came to getting assists. He led the Devils in assists last season with 52 and finished seventh overall in the league in 2011-12. For some reason, his production was just mired in a slump in the playoffs. Regardless of the 2012 postseason, Elias remains an important part of the team's offense even in his advancing age. Therefore, I'm not only interested in finding out how many of his 55 total assists were actual passes, but what kind of assists were they and who received them. The latter is particularly important as it may temper our expectations for the next season, regardless of length.

This will be done like the posts on Kovalchuk only with some more detailed passing categories and one additional finding for the secondary assists. Similarly, I'll provide full charts of the assists with links to the respective video that has each one. Today, I'll be looking at the 20 secondary assists Elias was credited for in the 2011-12 season. All twenty came in the regular season as all three of his playoff assists were primaries.

Amazingly enough, only two of his twenty secondary assists did not come from passes. One was a missed shot that bounced all the way back to Marek Zidlicky to the point, who then tossed it to the eventual goalscorer Ilya Kovalchuk. The other was a faceoff win that wasn't clean, led to it bouncing towards the net, later to be picked up by Dainius Zubrus who set up Petr Sykora for a one-timer. All of the other eighteen secondary assists were from legitimate, intentional movements of the puck by Elias. The fact that most of his 55 assists were primaries was impressive enough. Discovering that the vast majority of his secondary assists were from passes only made me more impressed. Talk about a straw stirring the drink.

However, the details are a little more complicated than that. For starters, four of his twenty secondary assists were from faceoff wins. While I denoted one of them that led to a goal as not a pass, I counted the other three as passes. It's arguable a faceoff win is not technically a pass since the center just moves the puck back, not necessarily to anyone in particular. In those three instances, Elias cleanly won the puck and played it back for a teammate to take it, which I think is enough to call it a pass. I can't read his mind as to whether or not he meant to give it to the guy who got it, though. If you feel they shouldn't count, then you'd have to count those. I don't, so I didn't.

Additionally, I noticed an interesting phenomenon with Elias' secondary assists that I didn't notice when reviewing Kovalchuk's secondaries. There were several plays where Elias' pass went to the eventual goal scorer and not the teammate who got the primary assist. What would happen is that Elias' pass led to a pass from the goal scorer to the primary assist earner, who passed it back to the goal scorer for the eventually successful shot. A secondary assist was awarded even though it wasn't continuous. Seven of Elias' secondary assists came in this way, including that one non-pass faceoff win. Should these count? Six of these seven were legitimate passes and the pass from the goal scorer to the primary assist earner did open up the space for the eventual shot, so it's not like it was a wasted play. Yet, without continuation, the meaning of the pass seems cheaper, even though it was a pass. It seems like it's just ancillary to the play, and so should that really be counted as an assist? I'm personally not sure. It did only happen to Elias seven times and perhaps that's a low enough amount to not be concerned with it? Perhaps that's enough to discount it? I leave those questions for later debates.

Moving on to the types of secondary assists, this little chart points out how Elias earned the assists:

Secondary Type Count % Total
Centering Pass 4 20.00%
Missed Shot 1 5.00%
Pass 1 5.00%
Cross-ice Pass 3 15.00%
Board Pass 2 10.00%
Point Pass 1 5.00%
Corner Pass 4 20.00%
Faceoff Win 4 20.00%

Just to briefly summarize some o the types, a centering pass was a pass made to the middle of the ice; a cross-ice pass was a pass that was made through the middle of the ice; a board pass was simply one made off the boards; a point pass was one made specifically the point; a corner pass was made to a teammate in the corner area of the offensive zone; and a pass was just some simple, generic looking pass. Faceoff wins stand out as Elias picked up as many secondary assists on those as much as passes to the center and corners of the zone. Since most of Elias' secondaries were passes, it shouldn't be a surprise to see such variety - regardless of whether you count clean faceoff wins to a teammate as a pass.

As far as who the primary assist earners were, twelve different Devils got at least one after Elias usually passed the puck:

Secondary To Count % Total
Kovalchuk 3 11.54%
Parise 3 11.54%
Zubrus 3 11.54%
Tallinder 2 7.69%
Zidlicky 2 7.69%
Clarkson 1 3.85%
Foster 1 3.85%
Greene 1 3.85%
Larsson 1 3.85%
Salvador 1 3.85%
Sykora 1 3.85%
Volchenkov 1 3.85%

I sort of expected to see Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and Zubrus high up on this list. Elias played with Kovalchuk and Parise regularly on the first power play all season. Parise's three primary assists after Elias were all on the power play, and two of Kovalchuk's three primaries came on the man advantage as well. Zubrus was Elias' regular winger at evens and all three of his assists after Elias came in that situation. I expected more out of Petr Sykora since he was Elias' other regular linemate at evens, but given he's all about shooting, I can't say I'm all that disappointed. In any case, the fact that twelve different Devils benefited from at least one Elias pass - remember, the two non-pass assists were followed by Zidlicky and Zubrus - speaks to Elias' skills as a playmaker. If he finds someone open in a good spot, he'll pass it along. It's also worth pointing out that seven different defensemen picked up an assist after Elias, considering points from the defense were relatively sparse in 2011-12.

Only two defensemen scored off plays that led to a secondary assist being credited to Elias, the other eighteen instances came from six different forwards.

Secondary Goal Count % Total
Kovalchuk 4 15.38%
Sykora 4 15.38%
Clarkson 3 11.54%
Parise 3 11.54%
Zubrus 3 11.54%
Larsson 1 3.85%
Zajac 1 3.85%
Zidlicky 1 3.85%

Half of Elias' twenty secondary assists were at even strength and the other half were on the power play. No other situations applied. Kovalchuk, Parise, and David Clarkson combined for eight of them. All four Kovalchuk goals came on a man advantage as did for two out of Parise's and Clarkson's three. Incidentally, it wouldn't be until March 29, 2012 that someone else scored a power play goal that had a secondary assist for Elias. That someone else was Zidlicky, and Travis Zajac was the last power play scorer for all of 2011-12 to have a secondary assist from Elias. All of those players were on that first power play unit with Elias, which was about what I expected.

Unsurprisingly, the common scorers at even strength that had a secondary assist awarded to Elias were Elias' regular linemates: Sykora and Zubrus. Half of Sykora's four came off Elias faceoff wins, the other from open play. Zubrus finished off the two board pass secondary assists from Elias, with the third goal coming after a cross-ice pass to Anton Volchenkov, of all players. Zubrus got a cross-ice pass from Elias that led to a rebound that Adam Larsson put into the net for his first NHL goal. In other words, nine of Elias' ten secondary assists at even strength involved his usual linemates. The lone exception was a centering pass to Kovalchuk that led to blocked shot sent Parise's way and flanked the goalie completely.

Through reviewing all twenty secondary assists by Elias, I shouldn't be so impressed that eighteen of them were from legitimate passes. Not because that a third of those led to a back-and-forth between the primary assist earner and the goalscorer. Elias was and (hopefully) is excellent at reading the play and making an appropriate pass. The videos I looked at justify that from last season. I suspect it's going to be more of the same with his primary assists (spoiler: it mostly is). Of course, I'll go into more detail with those in the next post. In the meantime, let me know what you think of Elias' secondary assists from the type of passes to who benefited from them to the simple fact that majority of them were legitimate in the comments. Thank you for reading.