Who should be recognized as the NHL’s best passer in 2021-22?

Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau joins Scott Oake to discuss his incredible week where he reached the 100 point milestone and recorded four points against the Arizona Coyotes with his parents in attendance.

In scoring plays, we tend to focus on goals. Those are the scores, after all. But what about the plays that precede the shot and set up those sequences? Shouldn’t those passing plays be highlighted too?

Jeff Marek seems to think so; that’s why he asked last week on his audio show whether there should be an award to the best passer each season. Sometimes, we like to indulge Marek’s ideas, especially when they’re as good as this one.

Passing is an essential aspect of the game that, at times, can be overlooked since it obviously comes secondary to a goal. But if you look around the league on any given night, you’ll see flashy set ups that deserve all the accolades in the world. And there are players who can do that on a consistent basis.

So whether this trophy eventually gets titled the Wayne Gretzky, Adam Oates, or Joe Thornton Award, let’s dive into the numbers to see who would be in contention for it this year.

The starting point is obvious: points. Now, this isn’t meant to be the Rocket Richard for assists. That would be too simple when we have so many ways to quantify puck movement — especially because some players benefit more than others based on who they play with versus their actual efforts. So points are not the end all, be all, but still a consideration.

Jonathan Huberdeau’s the league-leader in assists with 81 on the season. Artemi Panarin, Johnny Gaudreau, and Connor McDavid follow. Rounding out the top-five is a defender in Roman Josi, which adds a little more spice to this debate — who says the best passer can’t be a blue liner?

Accounting for ice time keeps Huberdeau at the top, with Panarin and Gaudreau nearby.

Breaking down those assists further, we can focus in on primary helpers to emphasize a direct influence on scoring. That takes away 30 of Huberdeau’s this season — his total of 51 primary helpers pulls him closer with Gaudreau’s 50. Patrick Kane (44), McDavid (42), and Panarin (40) all see their values rise here. Matthew Tkachuk (37), Mats Zuccarello (37), and Robert Thomas (36) come into the mix, as well. Factoring in ice time works well in Gaudreau’s favour, too.

For the best passer, not just the most frequent passer who happens to cash in all the time, we have to look below the surface and weigh all of the information.

In all situations, no one moves the puck in the offensive zone as much as McDavid’s 87.6 attempts per 60. The Oilers’ elite centre is always moving his feet in the zone, creating his own lanes, and finding ways to set up his teammates. There’s efficiency in that passing too, as he connects over 74 per cent of the time. Credit to Panarin for his puck movement as well, along with Nikita Kucherov and Sidney Crosby who all rate highly in their ability to send the puck around the zone.

Kucherov jumps out when it comes to quality plays as well, when combining his even strength and power play efforts. Between his attempts and connections, he’s the leader in puck movement to the slot; that includes all passes on the man advantage to Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos on that top unit in formation. Mitch Marner comes in closely behind, both in his attempts and efficiency. Huberdeau, Thomas, and Gaudreau round out the top-five.

How much of that puck movement leads directly to a shot attempt? No one has more primary shot assists, or passes that come directly before a shot attempt, than McDavid’s 22.8 per 60.

Mathew Barzal on Long Island follows with 21.8 per 60, then Gaudreau, Panarin, and Kucherov.

There’s still a flaw here in all of this analysis. It’s all situations, which includes when players have more time and space to make these plays, whether it’s on the advantage, 4-on-4, or 3-on-3. It obviously still takes skill to create passes at such a high volume, no matter the number of skaters on the ice, so it shouldn’t be discounted. But it has to be in stride; that’s why it’s pivotal to also focus on only 5-on-5 play to see how players manage when they don’t have as much room to generate offence.

So, back to the top with points.

It’s Gaudreau leading the way with 45 helpers at 5-on-5, and his linemate Tkachuk, two slots down with 37. Auston Matthews’ wingers both are in the top-five (Marner with 38, Michael Bunting 37). Thomas rounds out the group with 36 of his own.

Narrowing to just primary assists, seeing as those are a more repeatable skill and more directly influential on scoring, that keeps the Flames’ MVP at the top (37). Thomas, Tkachuk trail with 24, and Kirill Kaprizov’s behind them by one.

It’s only fair to account for ice time to make up for the differences in games played and minutes deployed. Once again, it’s Gaudreau leading the way. Mark Stone’s in second, with that ice time qualifier really helping his rating after missing so much time with injury. Thomas moves to third, while Nazem Kadri and Jake Voracek file in next.

Digging into that 5-on-5 play deeper, Leon Draisaitl leads the way with his puck movement in the offensive zone with 67.6 pass attempts per 60. Panarin, McDavid, Marner, and Crosby maintain their standing in the race thanks to their volume passing, as well. So do Kucherov and Gaudreau. But a few new faces appear towards the top of the charts in Ryan Strome, Evgeni Malkin, and Thornton who this award could be named after.

Aside from volume passing, there’s quality movement. Players who can consistently thread the puck to the more dangerous areas of the ice have the dynamic playmaking ability that should standout in this race — especially in these 5-on-5 situations since teams aren’t planted in power play formation, primed for those opportunities. Marner shines here with a league-leading almost 20 attempts per 60, and his success rate keeps him at the top in completions as well.

Thomas and Gaudreau follow Marner’s passes to the slot in both rate and completions to lead the league. Jack Hughes is fourth in his attempts (and ninth in completions) while Kucherov owns that ranking in successful passes. Draisaitl’s fifth in both categories.

How often do passing plays directly set up a shot for these players? McDavid still leads the way with his shot assists, with 20.1 per 60. To complete the top-five, there’s Barzal, Gaudreau, Draisaitl, and Brad Marchand. Shot assists are a particularly important number to track here because ultimately, a pass is made to facilitate a shooting play, and these players are the best at setting their teammates up for those attempts at 5-on-5. The fact that a player like Tkachuk, who does rate well in his assists and some passing stats, doesn’t fall in the top-20 in primary shot assists either at 5-on-5 or in all situations is a knock against his case, even though he has the results to show for it on the scoresheet.

But we can take it even further — what about the quality passes that precede a shot? Specially, lateral plays that cross the slot line, giving a shot a higher probability of becoming a goal because of how it challenges a goaltender.

Gaudreau’s the best in the league at preceding a teammate’s shot with a royal road pass to tee a play up.

Not only do those cross-slot passes lead to shots, but the viz above shows how often those set ups lead to goals as well — highlighting where the winger moved the puck, and his teammates received it with the arrow point. Something that also stands out from the passing map is the couple that come from behind the goal line. These plays can take away a goaler’s eyes, making it particularly tough to stop if followed by a quick shot. Just watch in the play below on Tkachuk’s goal against Arizona.

Barzal, Huberdeau, Kane, and Panarin all set their teammates up with those royal road passes. While McDavid, Thomas, and Strome move the puck from behind the goal to set up tricky plays.

So with all of that in consideration, who should be awarded the honours of best passer this season?

This analysis boiled it down to a clear winner above the rest in Gaudreau. He’s an elite puck mover and not just with his passing, but transitional play. The winger can bring the puck up the ice with control better than most, then send his teammates a high-danger pass to generate a slick scoring chance.

The likes of Thomas and Marner round out the top-three because of their standout 5-on-5 efforts, and direct influence on offensive creation. Marner does have the advantage of playing with one of the best finishers in the league, but his skills complement his centre and quite literally assist in his accomplishments. In St. Louis, there are quite a few 20-plus goal scorers and Thomas’ creativity has helped some of them reach these heights. McDavid and Huberdeau deserve acknowledgement too, likely rounding out the top-five. But despite their point totals, they just fall short of the others.

Seeing as this award was Marek’s idea, he gets a vote in this too. When presented with all of the data, without influence of this commentary or analysis, he came to the exact conclusion with Gaudreau standing at the top. Marner and Thomas round out his top-three ballot.

That makes Gaudreau the consensus pick as the best passer in the NHL this season, just another component of his MVP-calibre year.

Data via Sportlogiq, collected prior to Tuesday night’s matchups

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