NHL should rethink how assists are awarded

While watching last nights hockey game I found myself wondering about the scoring system. In particular the awarding of an assist. In the second period Montreal’s Erik Cole scored a goal to tie the game at 3-3. The team was buzzing around the Winnipeg net, a goal-mouth scramble ensued, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec made several stops before Cole knocked in a rebound.


The official scoring credited Cole with a goal, and Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher with assists. But how can there be an assist on a goal-mouth scramble? Doesn’t it require some sense of play-making to warrant an assist?

Clearly if a player passes the puck to a teammate who then scores, an assist should be granted; or if that player passes off to a third who scores, they both should be given assists. However it appears the NHL awards assists to players who were “taking part in the play immediately preceding the goal”.

78.3 Crediting Assists – When a player scores a goal, an “assist” shall be credited to the player or players taking part in the play immediately preceding the goal, but no more than two assists can be given on any goal. Each “assist” shall count one point in the player’s record. Only one point can be credited to any one player on a goal.

That’s a bit vague to me. How can an assist be awarded when the goal is scored off a rebound? Let’s say a player drills the puck at the net, the goalie stops it but an advancing player bangs in the rebound. Should the original shooter be given an assist for essentially failing in his attempt to score? Or do we assume he wasn’t trying to put the puck in the net, but meant to bank it off the goaltender’s pads to his winger – in other words play-making?

Certainly the NHL isn’t going to make any changes to how assists are awarded. With players contracts full of incentive clauses giving them chunks of money for achieving various milestones such as  number of points scored, a riot would result if the league made assists harder to come by. It would also make comparisons of eras difficult.

Unfortunately real play-makers get bunched in with those who happen to be around when a goal is scored. With tongue firmly planted in cheek I suggest the league continue to award points in the same way, but call play-making “assists” and the others “witnesses”.

“Goal scored by number 17, John Doe; assisted by number 56 John Smith and witnessed by number 32 Ivan Wasthere. The time of the goal …”

But hockey isn’t the only sport with this problem. Basketball’s NBA changed their method of crediting assists to allow the player who receives the passed ball to dribble it ball before shooting. Originally the player had to go directly to the basket.

In basketball, an assist is attributed to a player who passes the ball to a teammate in a way that leads to a score by field goal, meaning that he or she was “assisting” in the basket. There is some judgment involved in deciding whether a passer should be credited with an assist. An assist can be scored for the passer even if the player who receives the pass makes a basket after dribbling the ball. However, the original definition of an assist did not include such situations, so the comparison of assist statistics across eras is a complex matter.

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