Like any sport, hockey has its fair share of statistics that measure how players and teams perform. Goals, assists, and penalty minutes are among the more common stats in hockey and the best players know how to rack up many points throughout a season.
Other stats such as ice time and face-off winning percentage can indicate how well a defenseman or forward plays in regards to some of the subtler aspects of the game.
But what is plus/minus in hockey?
Plus/minus is a statistic in hockey that indicates if a player is on the ice more often when his team scores or when the other team scores. Each player has a plus/minus rating. A player on the ice gets a plus when his team scores and a minus when the opposing team scores.
Plus/minus can indicate whether a player has a positive or negative impact on his team. But how is it calculated? What about the power play and penalty kill? What is a good plus/minus? And is plus/minus an overrated stat in the first place?
We will explore all of these questions in more detail throughout this article.
What Does Plus/Minus Mean and How is it Calculated?
As stated above, plus/minus gives an indication if a player is on the ice more when his team scores or when the opposing team scores. If in a game, a player is on the ice when his team scores two goals and the opposition scores one goal, that player is a plus one or “+1” for the game.
If it were reversed and he was on the ice when his team scored once and the opposing team scored twice, then he would be a minus one or “-1” for the game. Throughout a season, a running total of every players’ plus/minus rating is tallied.
The idea is that players with more pluses than minuses are better and contribute more to their team’s scoring efforts. Conversely, players that have a minus/negative rating on the year tend to be thought of as a hindrance to the team.
The stat is often applied more seriously when considering whether a defenseman is having a good game or season because they are more directly responsible for keeping the opposing team from scoring.
What About the Power Play and Penalty Kill?
It should be noted that there are two situations in which a goal will not contribute to a player’s plus/minus rating. The first situation is on the power play.
Because the team on the power play has a man advantage, any goal they score does not count as a plus toward the plus/minus rating.
So if a player was on the ice when his team scored two goals, but one of those goals was on the power play, and he was also on the ice when the opposing team scored two goals, he would have a -1 rating for the game.
The other situation in which a goal does not alter the plus/minus rating of players is when they are on the penalty kill. Because they are playing shorthanded, if the other team scores a goal, it does not count against their plus/minus rating.
So if a player was on the ice during a penalty kill in which his team gave up a goal and was also on the ice when his team scored at even-strength, the player would have a +1 rating for the game.
It should be noted that if a player is on the ice when his team scores a short-handed goal he is awarded a plus. However, if a player is on the ice when his team gives up a short-handed goal, he receives a minus.
What Is a Good Plus/Minus in Hockey?
Before we get into whether or not plus/minus is a valuable statistic and a decent indicator of a player’s ability, we need to ask what a good plus/minus is. The answer to the question depends on several factors.
First, it depends on what league we are talking about. A youth hockey league will have different standards than the NHL in terms of what a good plus/minus rating will be.
It is also important to consider the position of the player and whether we are talking about the plus/minus rating for one game or the season.
A good plus/minus rating for a youth defenseman in one game could be a two or a three. Over the course of the season that could add up to a plus/minus rating in the thirties, forties, or higher.
At the NHL level, any plus/minus rating for a forward or defenseman over ten or twenty would be considered solid. In the 2018-2019 season, for example, Nikita Kucherov led the league in scoring with 41 goals and 87 assists for a total of 128 points.
He also happened to have a very good plus/minus rating of plus 24 meaning he was on the ice for 24 more goals for his team than against his team.
However, the second-leading scorer that year was Connor McDavid. McDavid scored 41 goals and added 75 assists for a total of 116 points. Even though they were close in terms of points scored, Kucherov had a far better plus/minus rating as McDavid was only plus 3 on the year.
Plus/Minus All-Time Leaders in the NHL
If you look at the NHL statistics for best plus/minus in NHL history for one season you will find a mixture of surprising and expected names. At the very top of the list is Bobby Orr who was an astounding +124 in the 1970-1971 season.
The second-highest plus/minus in a season, however, was recorded by a more surprising name, Larry Robinson.
You have to go all the way down to number three to find Wayne Gretzky’s name on the list (something that is rare for The Great One). In the 1984-1985 campaign, Gretzky was exactly plus 100.
The other thing you will notice when you look at the list of best plus/minus ratings in a season is that most of the top names are Canadians.
While that is pretty typical for the NHL record books, it is still pretty extreme when 46 of the top 50 are from north of the border.
If you’re looking for the player with the highest career plus/minus you would again be surprised to see Robinson’s name top that list with a super-high plus 722, which he built up over his twenty-year career.
Gretzky finds himself at fourth on the list with a career plus/minus of plus 520 (behind Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque).
The active player with the highest career plus/minus is Zdeno Chara with a career plus 288, good for 32nd best all-time.
Is Plus/Minus a Good Stat in Hockey?
As you may have guessed from some comments in this article, there are plenty of people who think plus/minus is an overrated stat and that it shouldn’t be given much weight.
Below are some of the top reasons why some people think plus/minus is overrated.
Wayne Gretzky Isn’t the All-time Plus/Minus Leader
Alright, this reason is a little tongue in cheek, but if you think about it, there is some logic behind this statement.
If Wayne Gretzky was by far the best hockey player of all time (which he was) and he has the most goals of all time and most assists of all time (he has more assists than anyone else has points) but he doesn’t have the best plus/minus rating of all time, it must not be that important.
If plus/minus was an important stat and an indication of a player’s value to his team, Gretzky would top the list.
There Is Too Much Luck Involved
Typically, when measuring whether a statistic accurately portrays the value of a player, you want to eliminate luck from the equation. With plus/minus you can’t do that.
For starters, you could be an exceptional player but have a poor goalie on your team who lets in goals way too easily. Though that is no reflection on your ability as a player, your plus/minus could begin to go in the tank with each passing game.
You could also have a bad defensive partner or wings, or a center who refuses to play defense. Generally speaking, you don’t want the performance of a teammate to influence your stat sheet.
There are other ways luck comes into play as well. If your team is in the middle of a line change and you are just getting on the ice when the opposing team scores, you would be charged a minus 1 even though you just got on the ice.
As we saw from the example of the 2018-2019 season, plus/minus can be fluky as there was a plus 21 difference between the two highest-scoring players, Kucherov and McDavid.
Another example of too much luck being involved relates to another high-scoring forward, Alexander Ovechkin. There have been years (2014 for example) where Ovechkin led the league in scoring but was near the bottom in terms of plus/minus.
One season he scored a league-leading 51 goals but was a minus 35. Does that mean he is a bad player? Unlikely. There isn’t a team in the league that wouldn’t trade away the farm to get a player like Ovechkin.
Ice Time and Game Situations
You could argue that a poor plus/minus rating means you are a good player. Wait a minute, how is that possible? Hang with me.
Imagine a player who is a defensive stalwart. He is a trustworthy player that isn’t expected to score goals and is always on the ice when the other team’s best line is out there.
At the end of a game, when everything is on the line, the coach puts him on the ice. He averages around 25 minutes a game.
You might be thinking if that player is really that good he will keep the other team from scoring.
And most of the time he probably will. But throughout a season, a truly defensive defenseman that is matched against the Kucherovs, McDavids, and Ovechkins of the league will be on the ice when the other team scores.
When a player plays a lot of minutes and against the best players on the other team, there is a good chance he will be on the ice when his opponents score. This will in turn hurt his plus/minus.
Does that mean he is a bad player? On the contrary, it means he is a good player and that he has the trust of his coach and teammates.
There are other game situations, typically reserved for the best players, that can only hurt your plus/minus rating. If a player is routinely on the power play because he has a cannon of a shot or is a natural goal scorer there is a good chance he is a valuable player.
However, goals scored on the power play don’t count toward your plus/minus total.
But if the shorthanded team scores a goal against the team on the power play (which happens in roughly one out of five NHL games) then the player is given a minus.
Also, if a player is on the ice at the end of a game when his team pulls the goalie and is trying to tie the game (again an indication that he is a good player) and the opposing team scores an empty-net goal, he is awarded a minus.
Throughout every hockey game, there are times when the best players have to be on the ice. Unfortunately, those times offer limited opportunities to earn a plus but plenty of opportunities to earn a minus.
Players who log more ice time in crucial situations very well could have a poor plus/minus rating. Therefore, plus/minus is not a good indication of the value of a player and how much they can and will contribute to their team.
More Useful Stats than Plus/Minus
If you are looking for stats that do a better job of indicating a player’s true value then it might make more sense to consider goals, assists, and ice time.
Obviously, the goal of the game of hockey is to score more goals than the opposing team. Players who score the most goals are therefore extremely valuable.
Players who record a high number of assists are also very valuable as they help to set up more goals.
While those two stats work well for determining a forward’s value, ice time helps determine how valuable a defenseman is. The more ice time a defenseman gets per game the better he is and the more trust his teammates and coach have in him.
Closing Thoughts on Plus/Minus
The debate over whether or not plus/minus is an overrated statistic or not is sure to rage on for years to come.
While there are plenty of people who feel that it does meaningfully show which players are better than others, detractors have increasingly used examples from recent seasons (like Ovechkin, McDavid, and others) to illustrate its shortcomings.
Either way, it is a stat that has been kept for years and will most likely continue to be tallied for years to come at all levels of the game.
Having learned more about what it is, how it is counted, and what it means, you will now be able to form your own opinions about this controversial statistic.