Thursday, February 23, 2012

Can Erik Karlsson lead the NHL in Assists?

Ottawa Senator defenceman Erik Karlsson has 47 assists in 61 games this season and currently sits tied for second in the NHL in this category. His 47 helpers would, in Gretzky-like fashion lead all defenceman in scoring on their own (2nd place Brian Campbell has 40 points). At only 4 assists behind leader Henrik Sedin, Karlsson could conceivably lead the entire league this year. Yes, that is extremely rare for a defender to do accomplish that.

It has been 37 years since Bobby Orr was the last rear-guard to lead in assists when he tied Bobby Clarke with 89 in 1974/75. It was Orr's fifth time leading the NHL assists back to 1969/70. The year he didn't, he finished second, 3 behind Phil Esposito. Prior to Orr, it was almost 50 years before when a defenceman led the league. In 1923/24 Ottawa Senator George Boucher notched 10 helpers to top fellow d-men King Clancy (8) and Bert Corbeau (6). Three defenders at 1, 2, 3 for the only time in NHL history. The only other defenceman to finish first in assists was Harry Cameron who did it twice, in 1921/22 with 17 and in the circuit's first year of 1917/18 with 10.

It has been since before the lockout that a d-man finished within even 10 helpers of the NHL lead. In 2003/04 Sergei Gonchar's 47 assists were 9 off the lead but he still finished in 14th place. The last man to even get close to the lead was Paul Coffey in the stike-shortened 1994/95 season when his 44 assists put him second, 4 behind Ron Francis. To even finish in the top 5 in the league is a very rare occurrence for blue liners:

  • Bobby Orr, 6 top 5's (Five times leading)
  • Paul Coffey, 4 top 5's (3 second place finishes)
  • Ray Bourque, 3 top 5's (second to Gretzky in 86/87)
  • King Clancy, 3 top 5's
  • Pierre Pilote, 3 top 5's
  • Harry Cameron, 2 top 5's (both first)
  • Eddie Shore, 2 top 5's (1 second place by only one assist in 32/33)
  • Doug Harvey, 2 top 5's (1 second place)
  • Bill Gadsby, 2 top 5's (both 3rd place)
  • Niklas Lidstrom, 2 top 5's (the last D-man top 5 in 2001/02)
  • Denis Potvin, 2 top 5's

  • George Boucher, 1 top 5 (first)
  • Red Kelly, 1 top 5 (1 more later as a forward)
  • Larry Robinson, 1 top 5
  • Borje Salming, 1 top 5
  • Brian Leetch, 1 top 5
  • Sergei Zubov, 1 top 5
  • Al MacInnis, 1 top 5
  • Babe Pratt, 1 top 5
  • Sylvio Mantha, 1 top 5
  • Hap Day, 1 top 5
  • Bert Corbeau, 1 top 5
  • Leo Reise, 1 top 5
  • Joe Matte, 1 top 5
  • Sprague Cleghorn, 1 top 5


Only 25 defencemen have ever been in the top five of assists in any given NHL season. Three defencemen in the long existence of the NHL have led in assists. Karlsson has a chance to be the fourth.

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