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The Plus-Minus Stat

Plus-minus statistics in hockey

One of the ways hockey players are measured on their performance is through their plusses and minuses. Although those statistics are tracked in professional hockey, many minor hockey coaches try to keep track of those numbers too when deciding which line a player should be placed on, or how a line is performing.  Many parents, the grandstand coaches that we are, use it to see how their player is doing.

“My kid is at -2 today,” a hockey dad told me, slowly shaking his head after his son’s team’s recent 3-3 tie, blowing a 2-0 lead. However, as interesting as the statistics may be for one game, they’re far more interesting when viewed over a period of time.

Plus-Minus, or +/-

Here’s how it works:

When your team scores a full strength or short-handed goal, each player on the ice at that time from your team — except for the goalie — is given a point, a plus one, or +1. Each player on the ice from the team that’s been scored on — except for the goalie — has a point taken away, a minus one, or a -1. That’s how plus-minus is calculated. Goalies are tracked using other criteria, such as shots on goal, goals against, saves, save percentages, wins, losses and games played.

These statistics help coaches, players and fans see a couple of different things. First, they can see how effective their offensive lines is at playing both ways – as defensive offensemen. They may be good at scoring goals, but perhaps they lack the hustle needed to get back down ice and help prevent goals from happening. It also shows how well defensemen can perform offensively, as exiting your own zone and maintaining puck possession in your opponent’s zone is often down to the puck-handling skills of the defenders.

People like to talk about players and their plusses and minuses, but not all goals are considered when compiling the plus-minus statistics.

MIA: Power Play and Penalty Shot Goals

Neither power play goals or penalty shot goals are used to calculate a player’s plus/minus and that’s a reason why the plus/minus stat is a little misleading. In the NHL’s 2013-14 season, Washington Capitals‘ Captain, Alexander Ovechkin, ended his season at with a plus-minus in the negative, at -35. This was despite having 79 points from 51 goals and 28 assists, including 10 game winning goals. In fact, Ovechkin’s 51 goals made him the league scoring leader, earning him the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for the 4th time in Ovechkin’s nine-year NHL career. Unfortunately his team didn’t do so well: the Caps missed the playoffs and responded by firing their coach, Adam Oates, who’d been with the organization for two years.

In May, 2014, when Barry Trotz was brought in as the coach for the 2014-15 season, one of the first questions the former Notre Dame Hound was asked at a press conference where he was introduced to the Washington press was what plans he had to turn help turn Ovechkin around.

Trotz, bringing to Washington 15-year’s of NHL coaching experience while with the Nashville Predators, went to work on Ovechkin, moving the right-shooting forward from right wing to left wing. The move seems to be working: just past the halfway point of the 2014-15 season, Ovechkin now has a plus minus rating of +8 and has racked up the 3rd most goals this season so far, with 27. He’s also the league leader in power play goals so far this year, with 12.

Interesting Plus-Minus Stats

The NHL used to give out the NHL Plus-Minus Award, given to the player with the highest plus-minus stats in a minimum of 60 games. All-time NHL scoring leader Wayne Gretzky won that award three times, and would have won it 4 times if it had been awarded that year. Gretzky also had the highest plus minus ever, — +98 — one less than The Great One’s player’s number, 99. The award, which was commercially sponsored, was last handed out in the 2007-08 season when Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk was the recipient.

Several other well respected players have met — and beat Ovechkin’s mark including Mark Recchi while playing for Pittsburgh and Carolina in 2005-06 with-36, and Rick Nash who had -35 playing for the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2003-04 season. Also of note, and something that Barry Trotz saw immediately that in the 2009-10 season, before Ovechkin was moved from being a left winger to right, he came in 2nd in the plus/minus stats, with +45.

In the minus column, although Ovechkin’s -35 was seen as shocking, especially by the legion of fans wearing his #8 jersey – which was the 4th-best selling jersey last season, it’s nowhere close to what another Washington Capital once racked up.

In the 1974-75 season, Cap’s defender Bill Mikkelson had -82. To put that number into perspective though, you really need to view that number by looking at the team, which The Bleacher Report lists as one of the top-10 worst NHL teams of all time. It was the Capital’s first-year ever, coming into the NHL as an expansion team. They only won 8 games that season, marking the Capitals’ worst year ever recorded, with 67 losses and 5 ties to round out their year. Their goalies – Michel Belhumeur, Ron Low and John Adams, all Canadians, let in a combined 443 goals that season, a record high that remains unbroken today.

In fact, it would take the Capitals another 11 years before earning a playoff position.

Having recorded a plus-minus of -82 may keep Mikkelson in the hockey record books forever, but his family’s hockey prowess will live on forever: his daughter Meaghan has won two Olympic gold medals (2010 and 2014) playing for the Canadian Women’s Ice Hockey Team, and son Brendan, a second-round selection in the 2005 NHL draft, is currently playing for the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League.


  1. Stella T.

    I swear you are in my head. I learned about the +/- stat this season and pay attention every weekend.

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