Have you ever looked at hockey player statistics and saw a plus/minus category (typically shown as +/-) but have no idea what it means?
I don’t blame you for not knowing as in my opinion it is one of the worst statistics used to judge players.
So what is plus/minus in hockey?
Plus/minus is a statistic that aims to describe the impact a player has on both offense and defense. In its simplest form – a player is awarded a +1 when they are on the ice for a goal scored. On the opposite side, the player receives a -1 when they are on the ice for a goal against. This applies to goals where a team is not on a power play or short-handed and is assigned to all forwards and defensemen only.
In this article we look at this statistic in more detail, explain why it might not be the greatest to judge players, and which players historically rank higher (or lower) for the statistic.
How is plus/minus calculated?
The plus/minus for a hokey player is calculated using two key numbers:
- Number of Pluses: A player will accumulate a +1 if he/she is on the ice for an even strength or short handed goal scored by their team.
- Number of Minuses: A player will receive a -1 if he/she is on the ice for an even strength or short handed goal that is scored by the opposing team.
Once this has been determined – you simply subtract the number of minuses from the number of pluses and you have an overall plus/minus metric.
What about goals on Special teams?
Special teams provide some of the most exciting moments in a hockey game and can be divided into two categories: the power play, and being short handed.
For simplicity – consider the time when a player receives a 2 minute penalty. In this case, the opposing team will have an advantage (i.e. power play) as they will be permitted to have 5 skaters on the ice. The penalized team however is at a disadvantage (i.e. short handed) as they are only allowed to put 4 skaters on the ice. This detailed article on the power play in hockey provides more information if you need additional detail.
As you can imagine – have an additional skater on the ice provides a great opportunity to score goals and therefore power play players should have numerous opportunities to pad their plus/minus.
Not so fast.
Powerplay goals do not provide a “plus” for the players on the ice when a goal is scored. In addition, players that give up a goal short-handed are not provided with an additional “minus”.
Although power-play goals don’t count towards any plus/minus statistics – what about the situation where the team who is short handed scores a goal?
Scoring at a disadvantage likely mean that player(s) on the opposing team with the advantage have made a mistake. Although scoring short-handed is rare, it does happen.
Because it is hard to score short-handed, the plus/minus does get used where the scoring team’s players are rewarded with a +1 and the opposing team’s players are provided a -1.
Do shoot-out goals count?
Another exciting event in a hockey game is the shootout which was introduced in the 2005-2006 season. Shootouts were introduced as a way to avoid games ending in a tie.
Shoot-outs – in their simplest form – allow a skater to take a breakaway shot on a goalie. This process runs for at least 3 rounds (i.e. 6 skaters) and continues until a team has 1 more goal than the other team with the same number of attempts.
Similar to the power-play section above – shoot-out goals do not count towards a players plus/minus. Providing a free opportunity to score with no defenders probably doesn’t warrant enough for a +1.
Examples of Plus/Minus from actual games
So far we’ve looked at what the plus/minus statistic is, how it can be used and when it first began getting used. If you are anything like me however – examples are required to really get a great grasp on things. Try to use the rules discussed in previous sections to help you understand how the player ended up with the plus/minus.
Example 1: Connor McDavid
Let’s start with arguable the best player in the NHL right now – Connor McDavid. Connor ended the last season with a whopping 128 points along with a +28 plus/minus rating. Not bad! Let’s look at one of his best games from last season that occurred on December 1st where the Oilers won 5-2.
Connor scored 1 goal, assisted on 3 goals, and was on the ice for another goal but did not score of garner an assist. None of the goals were scored on the powerplay, shorthanded or as an empty net. He was not on the ice for any goals against.
Plus: 5 (Connor was on the ice for all goals that were scored on even-strength)
Minus: 0 (Connor was not on the ice for any goals against)
Therefore as you can see – Connor McDavid was a 5 – 0 = +5 for this game.
Example 2: Seth Jones
Last year was not kind to the Chicago Blackhawks who as a team gave up quite a few goals (more on why this matters later). Seth Jones – one of the top paid defensemen in the league finished the year with the second worst plus/minus at -37. Let’s take a look at his worst game plus/minus wise from April 1st.
Seth logged a whopping 31 minutes in this game and had an assist on the powerplay for the Blackhawks. He found himself on the ice 4 times when Tampa Bay scored.
Plus: 0 (Seth was only on the ice for a powerplay goal but not even strength)
Minus: 4 (Seth was on the ice for 4 Tampa Bay even strength goals)
Therefore – Seth Jones was a 0 – 4 = -4 for this game.
Example 3: Gustav Forsling
I wanted to show this as an example as we will be discussing it later. Gustav Forsling finished last season with 37 points which is quite good. What really stands out is his plus/minus of +41. For comparison, the top defenseman in the league last year – Cale Makar – was a +48 but ended the year with more than double the points as Forsling with 86. Let’s use this game from November.
Gustav assisted on 2 Panther goals including the game winner. None of the goals were on the power play. He was also on the ice for 2 goals scored by the Capitals.
Plus: 2 (Gustav had two assists on even-strength goals)
Minus: 2 (Gustav was on the ice when Washington scored 2 goals)
Therefore – Gustav Forsling was a 2 – 2 = 0 for this game.
Is Plus/Minus a good statistic to judge players?
When I was younger, I would obsess for days looking at statistics on the back of my hockey cards. I couldn’t tell you if they all had this but I would venture to say that close to all of them included a column for +/-.
I certainly believed that this was an important stat for a player as it essentially meant they were on the ice for more goals scored than goals against. Sounds easy right?
As I’ve gotten older and hockey statistics have become more advanced – I’ve realized that plus/minus is not a good statistic to judge players. It’s not a bad starting point, but ultimately as i’ll go over in the next section, some really good players could end up with very low minus scores.
Drawbacks to Plus/Minus
Most of a hockey game is spent matching up even strength lines (i.e. 5 on one side and 5 on the other) which is why some believe that plus/minus is a helpful statistic. Although I agree to a point – there are several drawbacks or situations that help certain players over others.
To me team strength is the main drawback on why I find the +/- can be misleading.
When you look at the top plus players each year – they are typically on the top teams. Conversely – the really poor teams are where you find the lowest (i.e. worst) plus/minus players.
Now there are reasons why bad teams are bad, and for some players it may be completely accurate that they just aren’t great players on the defensive side of things. That being said, I would be willing to bet that there are many good players on bad teams who have their plus/minus lowered because of who they are surrounded by.
As explained earlier, goals scored on a powerplay do not provide a +1 when a goal is scored, and do not provide penalty killers with a -1. However – should a shorthanded goal be scored then that group of players on the ice will receive a +1 while the power play unit group gets the minus.
The powerplay is where you put your best offensive stars on the ice. The opposition will then deploy the best defensive players they can.
So – in effect – a player on the powerplay will never have the opportunity to increase their plus/minus rating, while players on the penalty kill always have that chance.
Late Game Situations
If you are a team that is down a goal or two – the coach will normally pull the goalie to get an extra offensive player on the ice. This strategy is a high risk/high reward scenario as the defensive team has a greater opportunity to pad their lead when the goalie isn’t in the crease.
And what type of players are you putting on the ice when you are down late?
The more talented offensive players.
As you can tell – the better offensive players on a team are now at yet another disadvantage as if they surrender an empty net goal (which is more likely) they will then receive a minus. On the other side of the ice, the defense minded players who are trying to hold onto the lead will obtain another +1 to their stat line.
Statistics you can use instead of +/-
One of the main themes of the drawbacks listed earlier is that plus/minus is that it favors defensive over offensive players. Because of this – I think it hold value for defensemen who tend to stay back with very little offensive output. But even that has drawbacks as if your team leaves you to cover 2 on 1’s often – that’s a losing proposition.
So is there something better than +/- that can be used to evaluate players? With the advent of more advanced statistics – I believe you can get a better picture of a players ability using Corsi or Fenwick statistics. Although they have flaws as well – I believe they are much better than plus/minus.
The use of Corsi statistics has become more prevalent over the past decade. These stats were created by Tim Barnes, and instead of using goals for and against, it uses shots attempts for and against instead. To me this makes more sense as shots are what ultimately lead to goals.
Corsi stats can be summarized as follows:
- Corsi For (CF): any shot attempt for (on net, blocked or missing the net) at even strength
- Corsi Against (CA): any shot attempt against using the same criteria as above
Using the CF and CA from above, one of the more popular metrics is the Corsi For % which can be found by: CF / (CF – CA). Positive numbers mean that a player is on the ice for more shot attempts by his/her team than against.
Although I won’t cover it in this article – this statistic can also be expanded to include the relative strength of a team so players on poor teams are not penalized as much as they are with plus/minus.
Another popular statistic used more commonly now is Fenwick. It is quite similar to Corsi in that it attempts to measure shot attempt differentials. The biggest different is that Fenwick does not include blocked shots in their calculation.
When did the NHL start using plus/minus
As for when the NHL and other leagues started to use plus/minus as a way to evaluate players – you may get different answers depending on where you look.
The plus/minus statistic was first unveiled to the public at the end of the 1974/1975 regular season. However – it began being tracked in the 1963 season. The reason for why it was released way after it started to be used is unknown, but online data is only available from the 1967/1968 season and further.
Although the date is unclear, plus/minus originated in the early 1960’s but was only used inside organizations and typically only by coaches and general managers. This stat represented another way to differentiate players to determine if they were strong on the defensive side of the game as well. According to this article, hall of famers Scotty Bowman and Toe Blake were the first coaches to use the stat.
Award for Plus/Minus
Although we have different statistics and more technology at our hands – the plus/minus was still used by many to judge the effectiveness of certain players.
In fact – the NHL introduced an award for the 1983 season which rewarded the top plus player for that season provided they played in at least 60 games. The award was named the Emery Edge Award and was won in the inaugural season by Charlie Huddie of the Edmonton Oilers.
The award stopped being rewarded at the conclusion of the 2008-09 season. At this point the award was named “Bud Light Plus-Minus Award” (clever) and was won by Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings.
There is no official reason why the NHL stopped handing out the award – but i’m sure it had to do with much of the criticisms we’ve discussed in this article!
Best Plus/Minus in History
You might be wondering at this point which players have had the best plus/minus in NHL history? Let’s take a look at the career leaderboard and the single season leaderboard.
Best Career Plus/Minus
First let’s take a look at the career leaderboard. As you may have guessed already – it is filled with the best players in history who also happened to play on dominant teams!
Best Single Season Plus/Minus
This is an interesting list. The values are huge and for the most part look to be the top players in NHL history that you’d expect to see. One name that really popped out to me is Dallas Smith. You might be wondering how he is so high on the list with so few points. Well that goes back to a point discussed earlier where it certainly helps to have one of the best in the game on the ice with you at the same time (Bobby Orr).
Worst Plus/Minus in History
Because we’ve looked at the best plus/minus players in history – it only makes sense to look at the worst as well for fun doesn’t it?
Worst Career +/-
No matter what you think of the plus/minus statistic – players on this list would need to stick in the NHL for a long time. Perhaps they didn’t achieve team success frequently, but they were obviously high regarded players if they stuck around!
Worst Single Season +/-
Now this is the list no player wants to be a part of. Regardless of your thoughts on the effectiveness of the plus/minus statistic, the following players and seasons are probably some of the worst team wise in history. It may come as no surprise that the Washington Capitals expansion 1974-75 season has many on this list!
We’ve just spent an entire article discussing one of the most controversial statistics from any sport in the world. It’s entirely possible that in the years to come that no one in their right mind will use plus/minus when describing players.
We hope that you’ve learned a bit more on what plus/minus is in hockey, and that the examples provided a good base of knowledge. I still believe that the statistic is not as effective as it used to be and am sure there will be a better alternative that becomes more mainstream over the years to come.
In closing – don’t discount any minus players as being bad. They could in fact be very good!