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December 5, 2019
The Plus and Minus of Plus-Minus
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
Few stats in sports are as misunderstood as plus-minus. Invented by hockey general managers as another way to evaluate players, plus-minus didn't become an offical stat until 1967-68. To this day, the argument still wages as to its true worth. Is it really an accurate measure of a player's defensive prowess? Or is it merely an individual reflection of a team's performance?
For the uninitiated, a plus is awarded to all skaters on the ice when their team scores at even- strength or short-handed. A minus is given to all skaters on the ice when their team yields an even-strength or short-handed goal. Can you dig it? I knew that you could.
Obviously, plus-minus is almost entirely dependent on the overall performance of the team. One player can only do so much. He could be the best defensive player in the history of the game, but if he's out there with four stiffs and a sieve, chances are he's going to finish on the minus side of the ledger.
Paul Ysebaert is a perfect example to illustrate the point. In 1992, Ysebaert led the NHL in plus- minus, recording a +44 with the Detroit Red Wings. Six years later, Ysebaert, now a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning, posted the worst plus-minus in the league, plummeting to -43. He's the only player in NHL history to finish at the top and bottom of the plus-minus heap. It's not as though Ysebaert suddenly forgot how to play defense. Granted, while he was a bit older and slower in Tampa, the biggest differences were his teammates.
Then there's Reggie Leach. Known as the Rifleman, Leach terrorized opposing netminders in the 1970s, winning two Stanley Cups with the Philadelphia Flyers and notching three 40-goal seasons. In 1975-76, Leach rang up a career-high 61 goals and 91 points, finishing a remarkable +73. But only two years earlier, while toiling for the vaunted California Golden Seals, Leach was a league-worst -61.
Joe Sakic, who's won everything there is to win in hockey, started his career going -102 over his first three seasons in Quebec. But maturity and better teammates soon turned the tide, and Sakic has gone +150 since then, even leading the league in 2001 with a +45.
Lousy teams are going to have lousy plus-minus ratings. The expansion 1974-75 Washington Capitals, perhaps the worst team in NHL history, owned nine of the 13 worst plus-minuses that season, including Bill Mikkelson's -82, which still stands as the record for futility. In fact, not one Capital player that season finished as a plus, a natural result of being outscored 446 to 181.
The 1989-90 Quebec Nordiques gave the Capitals a run for their money, being outscored 407 to 240. Quebec defender Bryan Fogarty posted a league-worst -47, as the Nordiques boasted the 11 lowest plus-minus ratings in the entire NHL. No other team in history has equaled that level of sorry supremacy
Yet there can be a distinct difference between an individual's plus-minus and the team's win-loss record, either positively or negatively. For instance, Kirk Maltby, LCS Hockey's favorite whipping boy, was the only minus on the President's Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings this season, finishing at a -9. Yes, Maltby is that awful.
At the other end of the spectrum, Colby Armstrong was one of only five Pittsburgh Penguins to manage a positive rating, leading the 29th-place team with an impressive +15. Now, Armstrong is wicked cool, but he isn't exactly Bob Gainey. Armstrong's plus-minus wasn't due so much to his defensive brilliance but his luck with linemates. He was called up to the Penguins midway through the season and placed on a line with Sidney Crosby just as the rookie phenom was finding his stride. And that's really the key to plus-minus. It's more a measure of overall dominance than defensive ability.
Theoretically, a player could finish minus for a season and still be a solid defensive citizen, especially if he isn't expected to provide offense. For example, New Jersey's Colin White was a -2 this season for the Devils. The prototypical defensive defenseman, White would be a valuable addition to any team. But since he's often employed in checking situations against the opposition's best scorers, and he only produced 10 even-strength points himself, it's very difficult to stay in the black. His -2 doesn't mean he's a bad defensive player, it just means he isn't a dominant player.
Wayne Gretzky's mantle at home isn't cluttered with Selke Trophies, but the Great One led the NHL in plus-minus four times, compiling a career mark of +518. And he didn't get there blocking shots and finishing checks. The best defense is a great offense. Gretzky simply overwhelmed opponents with goals and assists. As the years went by, and his dominance started to wane, so did his plus-minus. Over his final six seasons, Gretzky finished plus only once and was a combined -80.
Plus-minus is a measure of dominance, not defense. And few players were as dominant as Bobby Orr. The legendary Bruin blueliner led the league in plus-minus a record six times, finishing +597 for his career. Orr also holds the record for the highest single-season rating, compiling a ridiculous +124 in 1971.
But the best career number belongs to Larry Robinson, who was a pillar of strength for the incredible Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s. The Habs won six Stanley Cups during Robinson's 17-year tenure, due in large part to the spectacular play of their star defender. Robinson was +120 for Montreal in 1977, finishing his illustrious career at a staggering +730.
Despite his lofty totals, Robinson only led the league in plus-minus that one time in 1977. Even more surprisingly, Ray Bourque, who is third in career plus-minus with a +528, never led the league at all. Aside from Orr and Gretzky, the only other players to lead the league more than once are Chris Pronger and John LeClair, with two titles each.
In case you're wondering, the only player to finish last in plus-minus more than once was the aforementioned Bill Mikkelson, whose -82 with Washington was merely an encore after his -54 with the 1973 New York Islanders. In 147 career NHL games, Mikkelson was -147. That's consistency.
One common argument in dismissing the value of plus-minus, when not pinning it solely on one's teammates, is to factor in power-play production. Back in 1991-92, Mark Recchi had 70 points in 58 games for the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, but his plus-minus was an embarrassing -16. Instead of vowing to work harder, Recchi defended himself by pointing to his 16 power-play goals, saying if those were counted he'd be even. Pittsburgh management didn't buy that excuse either, sending him to Philadelphia only days later. And that's pretty much all you need to know about Mark Recchi, who, despite scoring 1,265 career points, is only a +18 over his 17 seasons in the league. So, basically, Recchi is on the ice for one more goal scored than allowed each season. Enough to win, but not exactly dominant.
And when you get right down to it, that's what plus-minus means. Winning and losing. If you're a plus, your team is scoring more than the opposition; hence, you're a winner. If you're a minus, you're being scored on more than you're scoring; therefore, you're a loser.
In other words, when Gretzky was a +98 in 1985, had he played every second of every game that season at even-strength, the Oilers would have won by 98 goals. Conversely, had Gretzky played every second of every game for the New York Rangers in 1998-99, when he was a -23, the Blueshirts would have lost by 23 goals.
With its undeniable dependence on team performance, plus-minus may not be the fairest individual statistic, but that makes it no less illuminating. The exuberance of scoring a goal is unequaled in hockey, perhaps only matched by its polar opposite, the sickening despair of allowing one. Plus-minus is merely a statistical account of this ebb and flow. Anyone who routinely logs a minus is no stranger to depression. And winners seldom carry such emotional baggage.
CAREER PLUS-MINUS LEADERS Player +/- 1. Larry Robinson +730 2. Bobby Orr +597 3. Ray Bourque +528 4. Wayne Gretzky +518 5. Bobby Clarke +506 SINGLE-SEASON PLUS-MINUS LEADERS Year Player, Team +/- 1. 1971 Bobby Orr, Boston +124 2. 1977 Larry Robinson, Montreal +120 3. 1985 Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton +98 4. 1971 Dallas Smith, Boston +94 5. 1977 Guy Lafleur, Montreal +89 6. 1977 Steve Shutt, Montreal +88 7. 1972 Bobby Orr, Boston +86 8. 1986 Mark Howe, Philadelphia +85 9. 1974 Bobby Orr, Boston +84 10. 1976 Bobby Clarke, Philadelphia +83 1986 Brad McCrimmon, Philadelphia +83 LOWEST SINGLE-SEASON PLUS-MINUS Year Player, Team +/- 1. 1975 Bill Mikkelson, Washington -82 2. 1975 Greg Joly, Washington -68 3. 1975 Mike Marson, Washington -65 4. 1974 Reggie Leach, California -61 1976 Larry Johnston, Kansas City -61 1981 Dave Babych, Winnipeg -61 7. 1984 Pat Boutette, Pittsburgh -58 8. 1975 Dennis Patterson, Kansas City -57 1978 Brad Maxwell, Minnesota -57 1981 Norm Dupont, Winnipeg -57 1983 Doug Sulliman, Hartford -57 YEAR-BY-YEAR PLUS-MINUS WINNERS Year Player, Team +/- 1968 Dallas Smith, Boston +33 1969 Bobby Orr, Boston +65 1970 Bobby Orr, Boston +54 1971 Bobby Orr, Boston +124 1972 Bobby Orr, Boston +86 1973 Jacques Laperriere, Montreal +78 1974 Bobby Orr, Boston +84 1975 Bobby Orr, Boston +80 1976 Bobby Clarke, Philadelphia +83 1977 Larry Robinson, Montreal +120 1978 Guy Lafleur, Montreal +73 1979 Bryan Trottier, NY Islanders +76 1980 Jim Schoenfeld, Buffalo +60 1981 Brian Engblom, Montreal +63 1982 Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton +81 1983 Charlie Huddy, Edmonton +62 1984 Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton +76 1985 Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton +98 1986 Mark Howe, Philadelphia +85 1987 Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton +70 1988 Brad McCrimmon, Calgary +48 1989 Joe Mullen, Calgary +51 1990 Paul Cavallini, St. Louis +38 1991 Theoren Fleury, Calgary +48 Marty McSorley, Los Angeles +48 1992 Paul Ysebaert, Detroit +44 1993 Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh +55 1994 Scott Stevens, New Jersey +53 1995 Ron Francis, Pittsburgh +30 1996 Vladimir Konstantinov, Detroit +60 1997 John LeClair, Philadelphia +44 1998 Chris Pronger, St. Louis +46 1999 John LeClair, Philadelphia +36 2000 Chris Pronger, St. Louis +52 2001 Joe Sakic, Colorado +45 Patrik Elias, New Jersey +45 2002 Chris Chelios, Detroit +40 2003 Peter Forsberg, Colorado +52 Milan Hejduk, Colorado +52 2004 Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay +35 Marek Malik, Vancouver +35 2006 Michal Rozsival, NY Rangers +35 Wade Redden, Ottawa +35 YEAR-BY-YEAR LOWEST PLUS-MINUS Year Player, Team +/- 1968 Elmer Vasko, Minnesota -36 1969 J.P. Parise, Minnesota -44 1970 Bill McCreary, St. Louis -44 1971 Doug Roberts, California -56 1972 Gil Perreault, Buffalo -40 Real Lemieux, Los Angeles -40 1973 Bill Mikkelson, NY Islanders -54 1974 Reggie Leach, California -61 1975 Bill Mikkelson, Washington -82 1976 Larry Johnston, Kansas City -61 1977 Al Cameron, Detroit -43 1978 Brad Maxwell, Minnesota -57 1979 Rick Green, Washington -45 1980 Steve Sullivan, Winnipeg -45 1981 Dave Babych, Winnipeg -61 1982 Dwight Foster, Colorado -53 1983 Doug Sulliman, Hartford -57 1984 Pat Boutette, Pittsburgh -58 1985 Doug Shedden, Pittsburgh -51 1986 Randy Ladoucer, Detroit -54 1987 Grant Ledyard, Los Angeles -40 1988 Brian MacLellan, Minnesota -44 1989 Tom Fergus, Toronto -38 1990 Bryan Fogarty, Quebec -47 1991 Vincent Damphousse, Toronto -31 1992 Paul Fenton, San Jose -39 1993 Neil Wilkinson, San Jose -50 Rob Zettler, San Jose -50 Doug Zmolek, San Jose -50 1994 Gord Dineen, Ottawa -52 1995 Chris Dahlquist, Ottawa -30 1996 Craig Janney, San Jose -35 1997 Alexandre Daigle, Ottawa -33 1998 Paul Ysebaert, Tampa Bay -43 1999 Darcy Tucker, Tampa Bay -34 2000 Yannick Tremblay, Atlanta -42 2001 Patrice Brisebois, Montreal -31 2002 Tyler Wright, Columbus -40 2003 Wayne Primeau, Pittsburgh -30 2004 Rico Fata, Pittsburgh -46 2006 Mark Recchi, Carolina -36