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Primary Thoughts on Secondary Assists

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Ah, the secondary assist. No other ostensibly positive statistic in hockey receives such derision.

Sidney Crosby wins a scoring title, and it must be because of all the cheap secondary helpers he picked up along the way. Nicklas Backstrom racks up more than 25% more helpers in his first two seasons than his Calder classmates, and the credit goes to a trio of big guns. And so on.

To be sure, playing with talented teammates has its benefits - being able to dish the puck to a teammate who might in turn set up a goal is certainly going to result in higher point totals than skating with linemates who either don't or can't pass. But let's get one thing straight - the League's best playmakers aren't getting fat on secondary assists... or are they?

Evgeni Malkin led the NHL in assists in 2008-09, and only 28% of his 51 even strength helpers (also a League best) were secondary assists. Marc Savard and Mike Ribeiro (tied for second in assists), had 65% and 62% primaries, respectively. But while the top thirty-one assisting forwards averaged 63% primary assists at 5-on-5, that number drops way down to 51% at 5-on-4. (Data after the jump.)

It's a fairly safe assumption that there are more two-assist goals on the power-play than at even strength, so a high percentage of secondaries is to be expected, and there are some pretty remarkable ratios here. Only 36% of Evgeni Malkin's power-play assists, for example, were primaries. Joe Thornton and Savard were at 37%. Ryan Getzlaf (who finished tied for third in power-play assists) was at 35% primaries. But perhaps most impressive of all, Crosby - who led the League in power-play helpers - notched 75% of those as primaries.

So what's the point? I'm not sure. There's nothing inherently "better" about a primary assist - they can be every bit as ugly and cheap as any secondary helper. But if you're looking to knock a player for free-loading on someone else's hard work, get the facts straight... and look at the power-play.

Below are two charts, each of which contain the League's top thirty-one forwards in terms of assists and each of which shows their primary and secondary assists per sixty minutes of ice time. The first chart ranks the players by primary assists per sixty minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, while the second ranks them by primary assists per sixty minutes of 5-on-4 ice time.

Assist_per_60_5-on-5_medium Assist_per_60_5-on-4_medium