Fantasy Hockey: Some Assists Are Predictable, Some Are Very Volatile

Sindey Crosby
Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby Charles LeClaire USA TODAY Sports

This is part 5 into my look of what makes a fantasy hockey breakout star. For those that want to get caught up, here are the others:

We’re getting to the meat and potatoes of fantasy value, and the first part of that is the value of the assist.

The fewest assists on the top-10 leaderboard for fantasy hockey roto value last year was 28, belonging to Alex Ovechkin. The majority of his value was derived from goals, power play points, and shots on goal. The most was Sidney Crosby with 68. The bulk of the players (six) fell somewhere between 38 and 58 assists. So it’s safe to say that unless a fantasy hockey owner is trying to find the next Alex Ovechkin (there isn’t one, yet), then a healthy amount of assists is needed to provide a breakout season.

First, it’s necessary to understand exactly how an assist occurs.

It’s much too simplistic to say “Player A passed to Player B” or “Player C passed to Player A, who then passed to Player B” and assume that’s how assists are awarded. There is considerably more involved when talking assists. Assists occur off rebounds, chips off the boards, deflections off an opponent, and a myriad of other ways. The potentially random nature of an assist introduces noise that can make it tough to discern luck from true skill. There are other issues, too.

Scorer Bias

It’s well-documented that certain arenas (ahem, New Jersey) are much more favourable to the home team with regards to things like shots on goal and real-time stats. The rate at which assists are given out is no exception. The information in the following table was taken from the Winnipeg Jets blog Arctic Ice Hockey in a piece by Dale Hawerchuk:

Home Away Home Away
First Assist Second Assist First Assist Second Assist
All 94.6 79.7 93.6 76.7
Even Strength 93.9 76.2 93.3 73.6
Power Play 98.6 93.4 97.7 91.3
Penalty Kill 76.3 38.4 71.4 31.1


A few notes about this:

  • Those are percentage rates, so the number of goals is mostly irrelevant. Yes, teams score less often on the road. No, that shouldn’t have a huge effect at the rate of which assists are handed out. That’s fairly important to recognize.
  • Three percent fewer second assists for road teams overall, and one percent fewer home assists, may not sound like a lot, but it’s significant in fantasy; the median team scored 105 road goals last year. That would mean about four fewer assists given out in total than should have been. It could affect every fantasy team equally, then again, in that piece from AIH, teams like Colorado and Pittsburgh have more bias than others, so maybe it won’t affect everyone equally.

The sound of four fewer assists for a fantasy hockey team may not sound like a lot, but I know I’ve lost money in leagues by less than that margin before, so no stat is insignificant. There is more to predicting assists, though.

Volatility of Second Assists

In a previous part of this series, I referenced a piece by Eric Tulsky over at Broad Street Hockey that discussed the random nature of the second assist. Here’s a breakdown of the R2 of different counting stats, and notably the second assist (for those less mathematically inclined, R2 represents how close the data is around a line of best fit – the closer to 1, the stronger the relationship; the closer to 0, the weaker the relationship):

  • For goals scored, the R2 from Year 1 to Year 2 was 0.2223 (pretty solid).
  • For first assists, the R2 from Year 1 to Year 2 was 0.1757 (less solid, but still fairly predictive)
  • For second assists, the R2 from Year 1 to Year 2 was 0.0082 (almost no predictive value).

Simply put, second assists are not predictable from season to season, a lot of which is for the reasons outlined earlier about how assists are created. Some players had most of their assists come as first assists last year (Gabriel Landeskog had 89.9-percent of his 5-on-5 assists as first assists) while others had a plethora of second assists (Taylor Hall had 48.6-percent of his 5-on-5 assists as first assists). This would indicate that Landeskog’s assist total should be stable, and probably even increase, next year, while Hall’s will undoubtedly regress.

Ice Time is Critical

Rate stats are used in real hockey terms to see how productive a player is when they’re on the ice. The thing with fantasy hockey is that rate stats are more or less unimportant, as limits are placed on games played, not minutes played. A third liner who produces at a nice rate is fine in deep leagues, but almost any first liner is better. Here’s what I mean:

Remember I talked about 38 assists being a benchmark to reach. There were 43 players with at least 38 assists last year. Of those 43 players, three of them averaged less than 18 minutes of ice time a game. Those three players were Jakub Voracek (who played mostly with Claude Giroux), Mats Zuccarello (played on arguably the best third line in hockey for half his 5-on-5 time), and Nathan MacKinnon (he may be a generational talent).

This is all to say that assists are crucial to fantasy hockey success for most players, and when looking for a breakout, remember:

  1. Scorer bias can have an effect on final numbers, but it probably won’t be significant.
  2. Second assists are volatile, so look for guys with few second assists last year (like Landeskog).
  3. Ice time is paramount. Look for guys no further down the depth chart than the second line (with top power play minutes).

*As always, thanks to Hockey Reference, Hockey Analysis, and Behind The Net for their resources

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