Everywhere we go, everywhere we turn, and in everything we do, we are counting. Time, money, temperature, distance, the score of a game of Euchre – whether we stop to think about it or not, our lives revolve around a perpetual rhythm of counting, measuring, and calculating, adjusting the count to the situation as we go, and ultimately making decisions from that information.
Meeting a friend for lunch at noon at your favourite coffee shop in Sudbury, Ontario, means something different to you and your friend than it does to two mates grabbing lunch at noon in a pub in Glasgow, Scotland. Standard time zones are a system to provide synchronization to the schedule of citizens around the globe, in this case the difference of five hours. Withdrawing $500 for a vacation means something different to a brother and sister living just fifteen minutes apart on either side of the Windsor-Detroit border. The Ontario sibling may be facing a $100 difference in exchange one year, but that could shift to a $200 difference had the trip been planned a year earlier or later. For a society to function, it counts and adjusts so frequently that it is rarely considered – a necessary and routine part of the day.
The point? Context matters greatly in comparing information, and hockey is no different. But when evaluating the history of the NHL and its record book, context is mostly dismissed. Sure, you may argue, television broadcasts or online articles reference and consider historical feats all the time – “Sidney Crosby is the sixth fastest player to 800 assists!”
FEWEST NHL GAMES PLAYED TO RECORD 800 ASSISTS
|1||Wayne Gretzky||February 1986||527|
|2||Mario Lemieux||March 1996||661|
|3||Paul Coffey||October 1992||880|
|4||Adam Oates||November 1998||919|
|5||Bryan Trottier||February 1988||969|
|6||Sidney Crosby||March 2020||980|
|7||Dale Hawerchuk||February 1994||1,006|
|8||Marcel Dionne||October 1984||1,010|
|9||Steve Yzerman||March 1997||1,016|
|10||Ron Francis||November 1995||1,017|
GP = Games Played
Yes, it’s true. Crosby tallied his first 800 assists in just 980 games, a tremendous feat under any circumstances. The headline considers the efficiency in reaching the milestone by using games played to be a proxy of playing time elapsed. Equal production in less time is better, of course. But a closer look without a lot of heavy lifting highlights some of the limitations of this historical nugget. First, of the 10 fastest players to get to the 800-assist milestone, every one of them – except Crosby – did so in a fifteen-season window (i.e., Dionne in 1984-85 through Oates in 1998-99). Odd, you might say, but it may be discounted as a result of there being a bunch of gifted Hall of Fame scorers playing close together in the NHL’s historical timeline. Nice work, Sid, to keep up with all these past legends of the sport. Nothing to see here otherwise.
But how can it be that across 105 NHL seasons the feat is achieved exclusively between the mid-1980s and late-1990s? How can it be that for the first 67 seasons of the league’s existence that no one reached 800 assists faster than these nine Baby Boomers? How can it be that seven of the 10 most “efficient” playmakers could have passed each other in the hallways had they attended the same high school? Each of Gretzky, Coffey, Oates, Francis, Hawerchuk, Yzerman and Lemieux were born from January 1961 to October 1965 in Canada. What a coincidence. All the great set-up men, from Frank Boucher to Elmer Lach to Henri Richard to Stan Mikita to to Bobby Clarke, retire without observing any of the nine players in Crosby’s company reach 800 assists. After Oates joins the club in the requisite number of games, no one bests the group’s pace for another 21-plus years. Not even Jaromir Jagr. It then takes Crosby – a phenom that won a scoring title at 19 years old and dominates the league’s assist leaderboard for 15 years – to make a splash in this elite assist fraternity.
Crosby’s best playmaking contemporaries, meanwhile, have either already missed the mark of 800 assists in less than Francis’ 1,017 games, or have no chance to reach it. Joe Thornton, a passing virtuoso and owner of the seventh-most assists all-time, missed his chance despite amassing a dozen seasons of top-10 assist totals. Patrick Kane, one of his era’s most productive players, fell a whopping 127 assists short when he crossed the 1,017-game mark. Through the 2020-21 season, two-time league scoring leader Evgeni Malkin remains an unfeasible 120 assists short with 77 games of runway left, so he too will not sniff Francis’ pace. Henrik Sedin? Ryan Getzlaf? Nicklas Backstrom? None of them got close to 10th-fastest. Only the gitfted Connor McDavid is on pace to join Crosby one day. It will require maintaining his otherworldly production into his 30s simply to bank assists at the level of 1980s stars.
So, why does it take two of the 21st century’s most promising, exhilarating, pass-first talents to enter the conversation on history’s best playmakers? Francis, a respected, consistent, two-way threat did not finish in the top-5 of NHL Hart Trophy voting as league MVP across his 23 seasons. Yet, over more than a century of hockey, he is the 10th-fastest to a major statistical milestone. To take nothing away from Francis’ extraordinary career, there is an elephant in the room representing an entire generation of scoring feats.
We’ve started on our path to put players of all eras on an equal playing field. Our fastest-to-800-assists example screams that adjustments are necessary to contextualize performance. Without adjustments made to hockey’s counting stats, recognition gets distributed unfairly. The performances of players in favourable time periods are overvalued; worse yet, the achievements of players from unfavourable time periods are underappreciated. Like 500 Canadian dollars in 1985, or 500 American dollars in 2022, time and place matter. Context is the key.
Data from Hockey-Reference.com.