What Is +/- In the NHL, and Is Plus minus Even Useful?

Posted on April 16, 2024 by Dan Kent
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Although ice hockey is one of the most basic sports regarding statistical measurements, there are still multiple tracked stats that can end up tripping new hockey fans up.

One of the most popular and controversial stats is +/-, or plus-minus, as most call it. There are a lot of fans who love the stat and a lot that hate it.

So, should you be using plus-minus when analyzing a hockey player? What even is plus-minus, and how do statisticians keep track of it? I'll dive into all of that in this article.

What is +/- in the NHL?

Plus, minus in the National Hockey League is a stat that measures how often a player is on the ice for a goal against versus a goal for. It will take the even-strength goals their team scores while the player is on the ice and subtract the goals the opposing team scores at even-strength while the player is on the ice. 

The result is a positive plus-minus if the player has been on the ice for more goals scored than against and a negative plus-minus if they've been on the ice for more goals against than for.

However, this stat has some conditions, so let's go over them.

Plus-minus for a powerplay goal

If a player is on the ice for a powerplay and their team scores, they will not be awarded a plus. Considering the player had the advantage of scoring while an extra skater was on the ice, it would not be fair for the player to be awarded a plus on their +/- stat if their team scored a goal. 

In addition, typically, a team will only have a select few players who routinely play the powerplay. If those players frequently scored, plus-minus statistics would be skewed towards those who play on the man advantage. You'd see players who played a lot of power play minutes at the top of the plus-minus leaders every year.

Plus-minus for a shorthanded goal

Players on the ice while killing a penalty will not be given minuses. Considering the player is playing at a disadvantage and has a reasonable chance of getting scored on, depending on the potency of the powerplay of the opposing team, it wouldn't necessarily be fair to give them a minus for a goal against.

In addition to this, much like the powerplay, specific players play shorthanded. As a result, players who routinely play on the penalty kill would likely see their plus-minus stats deviate toward the negative unfairly.

Scoring a shorthanded goal

Suppose a team scores a shorthanded goal, which means scoring while the opposing team is on the powerplay. In that case, the shorthanded players on the ice will be awarded a plus, and the team on the powerplay will be given a minus.

Considering the shorthanded team is expected to give up more goals than it scores in a situation like this, it is perfectly reasonable to award them and punish the team on the powerplay in such an event.

Plus-minus empty net goals

If a team pulls their goalie in an attempt to score a goal late and tie the game, but their opponent scores, the players on the ice will be given a minus. Although playing without a goaltender could be seen as a disadvantage, the team also has one extra player on the ice in an attempt to pressure the other team and score. As such, a minus is appropriate for this type of situation.

If the team scores, the players on the ice will be given pluses.

Shootout goals or penalty shots do not impact a player's plus-minus.

Is plus-minus an advanced stat?

No, I would not consider plus-minus an advanced stat. It's one of the more basic statistics in hockey outside of goals, assists, and points. I believe it is a very basic statistic that can measure a player's effectiveness at even strength and in some special team situations.

What is a good plus-minus value?

There is no hard and fast rule for a good plus-minus. When we look at a team's plus-minus average overall, if a player stands out over and above that ratio to the upside or downside, it can often give us an idea of whether or not they're excelling.

For example, a poor team full of minus players may have someone who is a plus 5 or plus 6. In this situation, that could be considered a strong plus-minus. However, on a powerhouse team where most players are plus 15 or plus 20, plus 5 could be considered weak.

Either way, it's not a good stat to utilize for this, and let's dive into why.

Is plus-minus a good stat in the NHL?

In my opinion, fans would be better off ignoring plus-minus in the National Hockey League and almost any other league that tracks it. I believe the development of more advanced statistics can give a much better impression of a player's offensive and defensive abilities over the more simplistic plus-minus stat. There is a lot of controversy and discussion around the usefulness of plus-minus, as some like it, but most hate it.

Let's talk about why it's flawed.

Why is plus-minus flawed stat?

  • Heavily dependent on the team
  • Ignores too many key situations
  • Linemates can kill a plus-minus
  • Quality of opposition is key 

The plus-minus stat is flawed for many reasons and, overall, shouldn't be utilized to judge a player's quality, whether offensively or defensively. Let's look at why.

The state is heavily dependent on the team

Even the best players on a poor team will struggle to generate strong plus-minus numbers. This is because, on the whole, the poor team is giving up more goals than they're scoring. You could realistically have a top-level talent in the National Hockey League be a minus player on a struggling team.

The stat ignores too many key situations

A player that gets most of their starts in the offensive zone in an attempt to generate offence may have an artificially high plus-minus. In contrast, a defensive forward who gets most of their starts in the defensive zone in an attempt to stop the opposing team's top players from scoring may have an artificially low plus-minus.

Even though the offensively talented player has a high plus-minus, they could be worse defensively than the shutdown forward who usually starts in the defensive zone.

Generally, teams may shelter pure-offensive players from being placed in high-risk situations where they are prone to get scored on, while they will rely on their defensive players to let in as few goals as possible in those high-risk situations, all while not giving them many opportunities to score.

This is simply one key situation out of many the stat ignores.

Linemates can kill a plus-minus

You could have one of the premiere defensive players in the game, and if they have weak linemates that leak goals, their plus-minus will be much lower than it should be. A coach may play this type of player with weaker players to lower the number of goals they have scored on them or to possibly increase their defensive play. 

Either way, even if that player ends up helping the line, they may not cure all of their defensive woes, and as a result, the player's plus-minus will suffer.

Quality of opposition is key

Because a player gets a minus if they're scored against, the quality of the players they are playing against greatly impacts their plus-minus. For example, a top-tier NHL defenseman might be playing 25 minutes a night against the top-end competition of the opposing team, who is no doubt going to score goals.

In contrast, a 2nd pairing defenseman, who may be weaker at defence, may get much easier opposition and could end up with a higher plus-minus rating.

Switch the roles, however, and put that second-pairing defenseman against the top-end talent of the opposing team, and you have a much different situation, which is why the stat is heavily flawed.

Who has the best active plus-minus in the NHL?

At this time, Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins has the best plus-minus among active players in the NHL. I won't go into exact numbers as this can vary night in and night out. However, he does have a significant lead on the second-place player at the time of writing: Ryan McDonagh.

Who had the best plus-minus in NHL history?

At the time of writing, Larry Robinson is the all-time leader in NHL history regarding plus-minus, and it's not even remotely close. At +722 through 1384 games, Robinson has about a 150-point lead on Bobby Orr and nearly 200 on Ray Bourque, who were +582 and +527, respectively.

However, remember that although Bobby Orr is behind Robinson because of the number of games he played (657 versus 1384 of Robinson), Bobby Orr's plus-minus to games played ratio is the much more impressive statistic.

There are no active players in the league right now that even come close to these types of numbers. It will be very difficult for a player to break Robinson's record or, even more so, match Bobby Orr's plus-minus to-games played ratio.

Who has the worst plus-minus in the NHL?

The player with the worst plus-minus in the NHL is Bob Stewart. He would play 575 games in the National Hockey League and be -257 throughout his career.

In second place was Don Lever, who would be -248 throughout his 1000+ game NHL career, despite scoring over 300 goals.

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

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