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The Straw that Stirs the Drink Part 2 - Reviewing Patrik Elias' Primary 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 35 primary assists he had last season, how they were made, and who scored off of them.

Head up as usual, looking for a teammate as usual, and his tongue sticking out.  I guess he does that more often than I thought.
Head up as usual, looking for a teammate as usual, and his tongue sticking out. I guess he does that more often than I thought.
Christian Petersen

In the process of looking at all 55 assists Patrik Elias picked up in the 2011-12 regular season and the 2012 playoffs, it dawned on me that something was missing. Elias is the franchise leader in goals, assists, points, and he's been such an important part of the team since 1999. He may not make it to the Hockey Hall of Fame, but he's one of the greatest Czech players ever and arguably the best forward in team history. His 26 should be retired at some point. While he's lifted the greatest trophy in sports twice, he is missing one key thing: a nickname.

For some, a nickname is a sign of respect. Proof that you have "made it." A proper nickname would be just an acceptable substitute for their actual name. For example, when you hear "The Great One," you know they mean Wayne Gretzky. When you read "The Little Ball of Hate," you know it's about Pat Verbeek. When you hear "The Lithuanian Freight Train," you know you're hearing Chico Resch - and he's referring to Dainius Zubrus. Specific nicknames are good nicknames. Despite all of the accomplishments, Elias doesn't have one. Maybe that's what he needs.

This two-part series on his assists last season at the very least provides further evidence that any nickname should reflect his exceptional playmaking skills. Elias has been a very good passer whether he's set up by the sideboards on the power play, continuing a counter-attack, or just finding an open teammate during the run of play on offense. He's got great vision, so maybe something like "Recon" or the "Scout" works? His passes can be so crisp, perhaps "Toasty" applies? Elias plays in all situations and makes things happen for his teammates, so would "Spotlight" work? i'm quite fond of "The Straw that Stirs the Drink," though it's long and wordy. Clearly, the correct answer is none of these and I should stick to Devils analysis and opinion.

So let's do just that. On Wednesday, I focused on Elias' twenty secondary assists. Today, I will be summarizing the findings from reviewing all 32 regular season primary assists and all three of his playoff assists. As with the last post, I'm not only interested in whether they were passes or not, but also the kind of pass and who scored the goal. The fact that Elias earned fifteen more primary assists than secondary assists is certainly impressive enough. While almost all of his secondary assists were from legitimate passes, Elias would remain prolific in helpers if we were to disregard the secondary assist in general. If we go with the understanding that primary assists are superior in that they're more repeatable (and they are, per Eric T's findings a few years back at Broad Street Hockey), then Elias stands out that much more.

However after reviewing the video, I've counted seven of those 35 primary assists were made by something other than a pass. Yes, that's more than the two non-pass secondary assists. It's also a larger percentage of Elias' primary assist total (20%) than non-passes out of his secondary assist total (10%). That said, I would say these were cheap assists awarded to Elias. Two of them came off Elias shots that were re-directed into the net, including his very first assist of the season. Two of them were just touches of the puck that led to the eventual goalscorer. Three of them came off rebounds from Elias' shots that were put into the net, including his last assist of the season. The real odd one of those three was his last one of 2011-12; a long rebound went to Anton Volchenkov, who flung a shot that went off Slava Voynov and past Jon Quick in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Out of the eight, I'd say three of his primary assists awarded were rather generous by the scorer: the two touches, and that last assist because of it's fluky nature. In total, the vast majority of Elias' assists were proper and legitimate.

I found that most of the 28 passing primary assists were to the middle of the ice, or as I called them, centering passes.

Primary Type Count % Total
Centering Pass 13 37.14%
Cross-ice Pass 4 11.43%
Pass 4 11.43%
Faceoff Win 3 8.57%
Rebound 3 8.57%
Point Pass 2 5.71%
Shot Deflected 2 5.71%
Touch 2 5.71%
Corner Pass 1 2.86%
Drop Pass 1 2.86%

In theory, a centering pass can be lethal for the opposition. A successful passes puts the receiver in a very good spot with the entirety of the net in front. Moreover, if there's a pass to the center, then the receiver is usually open and it follows he'll have time to shoot it or otherwise one-time it. Thirteen of Elias' primary assists came from these kinds of passes and it speaks to his ability to find his teammates in those prime areas and hit them with the puck even with coverage in the area. The rest of the types are mixed ranging from token instances (one to the corner of the zone, one dropped for a teammate) to just a couple of other types like passes across the middle of the ice and simple, generic passes.

It's notable that all three of his faceoff wins that became assists were all clean and direct to a teammate. It should be no surprise that all three went to Petr Sykora. What should be a surprise is who led in goals from Elias' primary assists.

Primary To Count % Total
Clarkson 8 22.86%
Parise 7 20.00%
Sykora 7 20.00%
Kovalchuk 6 17.14%
Zubrus 4 11.43%
Foster 2 5.71%
Volchenkov 1 2.86%

Your eyes are not lying. David Clarkson leads the group with eight. Elias did play with Clarkson regularly on the power play, but not much at even strength. Yet, Clarkson only scored two power play goals with Elias earning the primary assist. The other six non-empty goals came at even strength. How? A few possibilities come to mind: Peter DeBoer was mixing the lines, Clarkson came on first as the Elias line was still out there, Elias stayed on his shift late, or the power play unit was still on the ice after the man advantage ended. Regardless of how, Clarkson should send Elias a gift basket or something. More seriously, this certainly suggests it's not the worst idea in the world for the two to play together. While I don't think Clarkson will score 30 goals next season (I doubt anyone not named Stamkos would in a shortened season, anyway), Elias could help him from crashing entirely in the goal department.

The Devils could use that additional help as the seven goals provided by Zach Parise won't return next season and it's looking unlikely we'll see Sykora again soon. As with Clarkson, most of Parise's seven goals didn't come on the power play - only two of them did. The other five were at evens, though two of them were empty net goals. The same possibilities as to how it happened for Clarkson apply. As for Sykora, all seven of them were at even strength. Incidentally, he scored five of his 21 goals off Elias faceoff wins, including three directly off draws. Getting back to the larger point, these are goals that may have to be replaced. Elias can set them up, but someone's got to finish them?

We may see a few more from Ilya Kovalchuk. He was a regular teammate of Elias on the power play and he did score four power play goals out of his six assisted by Elias. Kovalchuk is such a good shooter that it wouldn't surprise me if he gets more looks from Elias, at least on the power play. I'd hesitate on expecting Dainius Zubrus to pick up the slack. I like Zubrus, but he's never been all that productive of a player. His season high in goals is 24 and that was a while ago. Elias did help him tally four goals, including two shorthanded goals which were Elias' only assists on the the PK in 2011-12, so he won't provide nothing. It just won't be much.

It's a bit remarkable that the bulk of Elias' primary assists went to five players given how exceptional he is at playing the puck and how he makes his teammates around him better. While he plays in all situations, DeBoer made a point of it to have him play with the top-six as much as he could. The non-forwards on the list include the two power play goals Kurtis Foster scored in that crazy 6-4 win over Philly and the aforementioned fluke from Volchenkov in the playoffs. Again, if we want Elias to continue being great (and we should), then it's imperative that he needs finishers for his passes. It's going to be a challenge for the Devils to find them soon, shortened season or otherwise.

I think the crucial area will be at even strength. Not just for his own line, but also on lines ahead and behind him as Elias can hang around on shifts or others can come early as needed. Last season, Elias picked up the majority of his primary assists at even strength. He was split on secondary assists, but Elias earned 22 of the primaries at evens, including two on empty nets. This dwarfs his ten primary power play assists and two primary shorthanded assists. Since most of the game is played at evens, it follows that most of his assists will come in that situation. It also means that to get the most out of his passing, then whoever he "clicks" with the best should be playing with him regularly. I couldn't tell you who that should be now, but it's something to look forward to whenever the next training camp comes up.

As one may expect by just the assist total alone, the videos provided further evidence that Elias was a very good playmaker in 2011-12. While his scoring got cold in the playoffs, he made things happen in terms of possession and production all season long. These 35 primary assists are further evidence of the former. 28 of them came off legitimate, intentional passes mostly to the center part of the ice, and I'd say five of the non-pass assists weren't cheap ones. Elias' large assist total from last season wasn't really boosted by generous scorers or happenstance. The majority of those 35 assists were turned into goals by five Devils, players who played regularly around or with Elias. Elias was an important part of team at both ends of the rink and on offense, this review of his assists proves to me that he really was the straw that stirred the drink. If only there was a good way to turn that into a nickname.

In any case, I want you to have your say about Elias' primary assists in 2011-12. Are you concerned that some of the goalscorers from Elias' primary assists are either not on the team (Parise, Sykora) or will likely regress (Clarkson)? Does it make sense to you that a plurality of his primary assists came on centering passes? What should Elias' nickname be anyway? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this review in the comments. Thank you for reading.