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Don’t Disparage Second Assists

In recent years there seems to be an attack on “second assists,” as if they are somehow they are less valuable than first assists. I don’t get it, because no two assists are alike, whether they are the first or second. Sometimes the second assist was more important than the first.

Last season Tyson Barrie led NHL D-men in second assists with 27. He was 18th in first assists, but a small percentage of people claimed many of the second assists were meaningless assists and he was padding his stats with second assists. He led D-men with 48 points. Adam Fox was second with 47 points and he had the second most second assists. In 2020 John Carlsson led D-men in points, and he had the most second assists. Roman Josi was second in points and third in second assists. In 2019 Brent Burns led D-men in points and he was third in second assists, while Mark Giordano was second in points and first in second assists. I sense a trend. But I digress.

While I don’t agree with the general statement “Second assists are less important,” I do recognize that in some cases, especially for D-men, some assists can be rather simple. Make a five to ten foot pass out of your zone, and then watch the forwards score on the rush. It will happen, especially if your forwards are named Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, Alex Barkov, Auston Matthews and others.

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I wanted to look at a larger sample size to see if certain D-men are more prone to second assists. I looked at the last six NHL seasons. I choose six, because NaturalStatTrick works in a maximum of three-year intervals. It made for quicker calculation, plus six years is a pretty good sample size.

Here are the top-30 scoring D-men in 5×5 points over the past six seasons.

Players GP Goals Total Asst 1st Asst 2nd Asst Points
Brent Burns 454 59 133 79 54 192
Erik Karlsson 391 37 137 68 69 174
Roman Josi 427 38 127 75 52 165
John Carlson 411 45 119 65 54 164
Victor Hedman 424 48 99 58 41 147
Tyson Barrie 424 39 107 61 46 146
Dougie Hamilton 429 54 92 45 47 146
John Klingberg 413 24 113 58 55 137
Alex Pietrangelo 413 39 98 49 49 137
Morgan Rielly 418 32 104 54 50 136
Mark Giordano 439 36 97 44 53 133
Dmitry Orlov 448 35 97 50 47 132
Kris Letang 372 35 97 40 57 132
Mattias Ekholm 441 27 101 49 52 128
Ryan Suter 449 22 105 51 54 127
Jake Muzzin 424 30 95 40 55 125
Ryan Ellis 360 32 91 45 46 123
Seth Jones 421 28 93 48 45 121
Alex Goligoski 444 22 97 42 55 119
Keith Yandle 453 17 100 51 49 117
Jaccob Slavin 429 20 96 41 55 116
Jared Spurgeon 412 38 77 37 40 115
Aaron Ekblad 412 37 78 36 42 115
Darnell Nurse 404 37 78 32 46 115
Torey Krug 414 19 95 47 48 114
Duncan Keith 426 16 96 36 60 112
Jeff Petry 421 32 79 41 38 111
P.K. Subban 391 31 80 48 32 111
Oliver Ekman-Larsson 429 29 80 41 39 109
TJ Brodie 424 15 94 36 58 109

Brent Burns was an offensive machine.

Barrie was sixth in total assists and sixth in points and he was fifth in first assists. Barrie had 57% of his assists as first assists. Brent Burns, Viktor Hedman and Roman Josi had 59%. PK Subban actually had the highest (60%), but he was 26th in total assists. Over six seasons Barrie has not relied heavily on second assists.

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Next I wanted to look at total points and see if that altered things.

Players GP Goals Total Assts 1st Asst 2nd Asst Points
Brent Burns 454 103 272 152 120 375
Victor Hedman 424 75 261 149 112 336
John Carlson 411 70 263 151 112 333
Erik Karlsson 391 59 263 136 127 322
Roman Josi 427 79 238 137 101 317
Kris Letang 372 68 229 112 117 297
Tyson Barrie 424 61 229 124 105 290
Torey Krug 414 43 245 138 107 288
John Klingberg 413 54 233 115 118 287
Keith Yandle 453 35 243 139 104 278
Drew Doughty 451 59 209 102 107 268
Mark Giordano 439 77 187 77 110 264
Dougie Hamilton 429 84 174 85 89 258
Ryan Suter 449 41 215 98 117 256
Alex Pietrangelo 413 72 183 89 94 255
Morgan Rielly 418 49 200 95 105 249
Oliver Ekman-Larsson 429 73 161 76 85 234
Seth Jones 421 51 183 90 93 234
Rasmus Ristolainen 430 36 185 97 88 221
Shayne Gostisbehere 379 60 159 69 90 219
P.K. Subban 391 53 165 88 77 218
Jeff Petry 421 61 153 82 71 214
Duncan Keith 426 30 180 70 110 210
Nick Leddy 440 35 171 88 83 206
Jared Spurgeon 412 63 141 66 75 204
Kevin Shattenkirk 396 44 156 85 71 200
Ryan Ellis 360 55 144 79 65 199
Jake Muzzin 424 44 153 66 87 197
Shea Weber 353 78 119 54 65 197
Aaron Ekblad 412 70 125 54 71 195

Not much changed. The top players saw their first assist percentage drop a few percentage points, although John Carlson’s did jump from 54% at 5×5 to 57% overall. Six D-men who were in the top-30 in 5×5 points dropped out of the top-30 overall, mainly because they didn’t play much on the powerplay. Dmitri Orlov, Mattias Ekholm, Alex Goligoski, Jaccob Slavin, Darnell Nurse and TJ Brodie dropped out, while Drew Doughty, Rasmus Ristolainen, Shayne Ghostisbehere, Nick Leddy, Kevin Shattenkirk and Shea Weber cracked the top 30.

Barrie’s first assist percentage dropped from 57% at 5×5 to 54% overall. This was similar to drops of a few percentage points for many D-men, but he was still one of a small group that was 54% or higher.

It is accurate to say Barrie did have more second assists last season, and I could see that continuing this season because of the forwards he plays with. But historically that hasn’t been the case. He’s actually been near the top in first assist% for much of his career.

As Barrie ages, combined with the fact he plays with two of the NHL’s most productive forwards off the rush, it isn’t surprising to me he will have more second assists than first assists. I think last year’s split of 5-13 (first/second assists at 5×5) was a bit of an outlier. I could see that split dropping from 27%-73% (1st-2nd) to likely around 45-55% this season.

Only four D-men had double digit first assists at 5×5 last year. Thomas Chabot had 14, Justin Schultz had 12, Brett Pesce and Ty Smith each had 10. If Barrie had two or three more first assists he’d have been ranked between 10-25th.

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I wouldn’t get too caught up in trying to downplay second assists, or disparaging players because they have them. The tables above show how even the most offensively prolific D-men usually hover around a 50-50 split in first to second assists overall with some of the top D-men ranging between 55-59%.

Barrie did have 13 first assist in 56 games last season. Here are the Oilers’ leading D-men in first assists and points since McDavid arrived.

2016: Andrej Sekera had 13 first assists and 30 points in 81 games.
2017: Oscar Klefbom had 15 first assists and 38 points in 82 games.
2018: Nurse had eight first assists and 26 points in 82 games.
2019: Nurse had 12 first assists and 41 points in 82 games.
2020: Nurse with 12 first assists and 33 points in 71 games.
2021: Barrie had 13 first assist and 48 points in 56 games. Prorates to 19 first assists and 70 points in 82 games.

Barrie is not elite defensively, but he’s among the NHL’s elite offensive defenceman.

If he produces 60+ points this season then Edmonton likely will have a solid regular season.

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