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Viktor Arvidsson
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Hockey Analytics

NHL ANALYTICS: EVALUATING SHOT ASSISTS

by Gus Katsaros
Updated On: February 10, 2022, 2:24 am ET

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Over time, nuance has crept into the game of hockey to try to add context to game story. Goals alone tell one story.

It was a 1-0 game. One goal scorer. One single data point to distinguish the game narrative. We need more data points.

Adding assists to goals now highlight scorer and playmaker. Secondary assists offer some strategic glimpse or complimentary layer to a complex situation. Counting statistics alone could be improved with heat maps and location data. Context matters.

Expanding events to include shots provides more perspective. The team with zero goals outshot the game winner 35-20 changes the perspective of the 1-0 win. Shot attempts expand the dataset to expand narrative and analytical value.

Similar to assists recorded on goals scored, the immediate pass preceding a shot on goal is called a ‘shot assist’. This vital statistic offers degrees of analysis for on-ice pressure points, strategy in addition to player performance. Studies using pre-shot movement, the lead up to the actual shot, offers a revealing glimpse into how offensive chances improve with more than just location to the goal, with focus on passes across the “Royal Road” an imaginary line that splits the offensive zone down the middle. Pre-shot movement forces goaltenders to move laterally and create seams if a clear shot on goal isn’t the best option – which subsequently, becomes the primary shot assist. Because if you can have multiple assists on a goal, why not multiple shot assists?

Shot assists were introduced into the public sphere courtesy of the Passing Project initiated by Ryan Stimson, where he was able to decipher the value of shot assists and then expanding on that analysis to identify primary points as a greater indicator of predictive power over shots and points. Taking the concept further was estimating shot assists. The introduction of shot assists has yet to really reach peak analysis in the public sphere, but there’s untapped possibility.

Tracking Passing Statistics

Corey Sznajder and his “All Three Zone” project tracks this kind of data each season since 2016 and has been building on the data set and visualizations in Tableau.

His Tableau page contains a multitude of tracked microstats to get lost in and there’s a version for the 2020-21 season. At the time of this writing, he’d tracked an average of 15 games for every team, with little variance swings to the extremes between some select teams – Arizona with only nine games tracked for instance.

I’d suggest poking around to find a unique combination of tracked stats, with the added interactivity possible with Tableau, but for our purposes, the screenshot is for all forwards shots/60 plotted against primary shot assists/60. That’s Nikita Kucherov on the top right, close to the top of Dual Threats label. Viktor Arvidsson is the King at the top, being much more of a shooter, but still above average in setups according to the rest of the NHL.

 

 

5v5 Skaters Shot Assists Per 60

 

A great example for team-wide analysis are the Colorado Avalanche defensemen, indicating where they land in this graph because that entire blueline is ridiculous.

Each defender contributes to shot assists above league average and support the high event volume – making the Avalanche an absolute threat from the blueline up to the potent forward group.

5v5 Shot Assists and Shots Per 60 minutes - Colorado Avalanche Defensemen

 

Using the underlying dataset (which is available to Patreon subscribers) we can aggregate teams shot assists/60 and measure against high danger shot assists/60. This chart is sorted to show teams with the most HD shot assists per 60 and in relation to their overall volume. It’s not a surprise to see the best teams in the top right quadrant, where teams want to land in this chart indicating a high volume of shot assists that incorporate a high volume of high danger shot assists.

Teams Shot Assists Per 60 Minutes at 5v5

 

The surprise is to see a high volume shot assist team with a very low high danger rate.

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INDIVIDUAL PLAYER PERFORMANCE

Even more informative is when we take it down from the team level to the player level. Expanding the definition of a ‘shot’ to isolate it on ice as a scoring chance usually involves a shot from an area like the home plate emanating from the crease front. I refer to this ‘home plate’ area for scoring chances very often.

Scoring Chance Home Plate Area

 

We are going to explore chance assists but not before we can use shot assists and high danger SA’s.

 

SHOT ASSISTS PER 60

It’s no surprise to see Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov so high on this list creating a shot assist almost every couple of minutes. And just like we all expected, he’s followed by Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Phillip Danault … yeah, that same Danault, ex-Habs, and now a member of the LA Kings. Of note on his record line is the 3.7% of shot assists categorized as high danger. The blue highlights also denote leaders among chance assists/60. He may be making the initial pass leading to a shot on goal, but it’s not getting into high danger areas.

There are a lot of impressive playmakers listed in this table, but noticing Gourde so high shows how effective a playmaker the versatile winger can be to a complete forward unit. Seattle did their homework at the expansion draft targeting him from the Lightning.

Shot Assists Per 60 minutes

 

As a collective this group is averaging about 10.6% HD shot assists as a function of their total shot assists so it would be a good time to highlight the leaders. Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau’s incredible season is partly attributable to having a little over one in five passes leading to shots placed in high danger areas.

 

High Danger Shot Assists Per 60 minutes

 

Some other percentages of note, Sonny Milano over 25%, and Taylor Raddysh at a whopping 26.6%. Those are NHL leaders among players with more than average time on ice in games tracked. The variance of high danger shot assists from the 4.96 high of Gaudreau to almost half that amount by Artemi Panarin occurs over the top 25 players. The range also shows in chances as we shall see in the table below

Chance Assists Per 60 minutes

 

There’s a comparable drop from the 8.25 chance assists per 60 by Detroit’s Tyler Bertuzzi – who’s killing it as a goal scorer and playmaker this season – and the Jakub Voracek, Mitch Marner range of 7.5.

Former Coyotes forward Anthony Duclair finding happiness in sunny Florida and contributing a high percentage of his shot assists from high danger areas – and in the end a high degree of chances generated from his passing ability. A similar high rate of chance creation is shown for current Yote, the fragile Nick Schmaltz. His individual shot assists aren’t very special, but his passing/playmaking transforming into a scoring chance is plentiful.

We have only scratched the surface to the value that shot assists bring to hockey analysis. With organizations like Sportlogiq and Stathletes offering public information for television broadcasts – and analysis – it’s fairly certain we shall see more intuitive applications of shooting metrics, and expected goals modelling that incorporate pre-shot movement.

Gus Katsaros
Gus Katsaros is the Pro Scouting Coordinator with McKeen’s Hockey, publishers of industry leading scouting and fantasy guide, the McKeen’s Annual Hockey Pool Yearbook. He also contributes to popular blog MapleLeafsHotStove.com ... he can be followed on Twitter @KatsHockey