What is plus minus in hockey? Decoding the +/- stat

When you are looking at a players scoring stats the first column that shows up after goals, assists and points is the +/- (plus/minus) symbol. What does this symbol mean and what does it indicate about the performance of the player on the ice? 

What does plus minus (+/-) mean in hockey? The plus minus stat is used to determine how often a player is on the ice when a goal is scored for the team versus against the team. A positive plus minus means that the player has been on for more goals scored than against, while a negative number means they have been on for more against. 

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As with most stats and rules there are exceptions if a player gets a plus or minus. So let’s take a closer look at the purpose of the plus minus stat, how you count it (featuring a Conner McDavid case study), and whether it is even a good evaluator of performance.

We will end it off by looking at some individual stats – league leaders and all-time leaders for the plus-minus stat.

What plus minus in hockey? The purpose of the stat!

The hockey plus-minus is a statistic used in hockey to evaluate a player’s overall effectiveness on the ice. 

It gives a positive point to the offensive players who are on the ice when his club scores an even-strength or shorthanded goal.

And it gives a negative point to the defensive players who are on the ice when an even-strength goal or shorthanded goal against is scored.  

The theory goes that you a good indicator of how much a player is helping their team can be measure by looking at how many times they were on for goals for and against: Thus the plus-minus statistic. 

It makes sense because every player at every level is always conscious of how many times they were on for and against during a game. You obviously want to be on for more than against, but the statistic isn’t always great at measuring overall effectiveness – more on that later. 

Before we get there let’s make sure we understand how it is being calculated during a game!

A plus or minus is given to a player on the ice:

  • A player will receive a plus each time he is on the ice when his club scores an even-strength or shorthanded goal. 
  • A player will receive a minus when they are on the ice when an even-strength or shorthanded goal is scored
  • A player receives neither a plus or a minus when a power play goal is scored. The players on the team scoring the power play goal do not get a plus, and the players who were trying to kill the penalty shorthanded, but didn’t, do not get a minus
  • Players who are on the ice for an empty net goal against will receive a plus and a minus as this is still considered even strength, unless the team who scores the empty net goal is on a power play (this happens rarely!)

How is plus minus calculated?

The stat is fairly simple to calculate as you add up all the times the player was on for a goal for and subtract the times he was on for a goal against keeping in mind the rules and exceptions listed above.

Let’s go over a few examples using Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers

Example #1

Connor McDavid gets 3 goals on the power play giving him a hat trick for the night. However, he was also on the ice for 2 goals against. What is his plus minus?

Plus: 0 (remember power play goals do not count towards your plus stat_

Minus: -2 (he was on for 2 even strength goals against)

Therefore, 0 + -2 = -2

On this night, even though he was on for 3 power play goals, Connor McDavid had a negative plus-minus of -2.

Example #2

Connor McDavid gets 2 goals at even strength and 1 goal on the power play. He is on the ice for an empty net goal at the end of the game. What is his plus minus?

Plus: 2 (the two even strength goals count, but the power play goal does not)

Minus: -1 (the empty net goal at the end at even strength counts as a minus)

Therefore, 2 + -1 = 1

On this night Connor McDavid is plus 1

Example #3

Connor McDavid gets 2 assists at even strength. He is on the ice for 4 goals against – 2 even strength, one shorthanded on the penalty kill, and an empty net goal. What is his plus minus? 

Plus: 2 (the 2 assists at even strength count as pluses)

Minus: -3 (the two goals at even strength and the empty net goal count as minuses, while the shorthanded goal does not)

Therefore, 2 + -3 = -1

On this night Connor McDavid is -1.

Is plus minus a good indicator of performance?

This stat has had a little bit of controversy around it because of all the variables around it that are out of a players control of whether he gets a plus or minus.

Some of the situations that come up that put a question to this stat are:

  • Let’s say a line change has just occured and a player comes onto the ice moments before a goal is scored. This player will get either get a plus or minus even though they were not at all involved in the play. Is that fair? Is that any indication of his skill or contribution to the game
  • Or how about a goalie that let’s in a really bad goal that my 6 year old could stop? All of his teammates on the ice get a minus. Why do they get a minus when the goal had nothing to do with their play?
  • Finally, how about if a superstar like Connor McDavid does an amazing individual play and takes it upon himself to score because his line mates are playing poorly. Even though the line mates did not do anything they still get a plus.

All of these points are valid, and it does show some weakness in the stat. However, I am of the belief that so many of these easy pluses and unfortunate minuses will work themselves out in the end. 

You are going to get some that go for you and some will go against, but at the end of the day it is a good indication of the contribution you are providing on the ice. Over the course of the season it will help to see if you are helping to push your team forward.

When you look at the history of players who have great plus minus stats they are great players. Players such as Bobby Orr and Nik Lidstrom and Selke award winners for best defensive forward are all over this stat. To me that speaks to the validity of it. 

Actually, I think that players who have great plus minus stats are indications of players that really help to move the needle forward for their team winning. 

Players who score a lot of points and have lousy plus minus are often not that great of players. Of course, great players play on poor teams. But, on the other hand, there is more to hockey than scoring goals. A player today needs to be good at both scoring and stopping the opponent from scoring. Plus minus is a simple and I believe, effective, indicator of this. As with any stat it cannot be analyzed alone and needs to be taken into a bigger context.

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What is a good plus minus? 

So what is a good plus minus? I think it is a pretty simple metric to determine whether you are doing well or not. Be above zero and it is good, and if you are below zero it is bad.

Having a ‘+’ symbol next to the number instantly brings out warm fuzzy feelings. Having a ‘-‘ symbol makes you want to crawl under a rock.

That is a little simplistic, but I have put together a list of the best plus minus players from the 2022-23 season.

The worst by the way was Andrew Peeke of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He was -41. Ouch!

League leaders for 2022-23

H. LindholmBoston49
M. GrzelcykBoston46
B. CarloBoston44
J. PavelskiDallas42
T. TatarNJ31
D. ToewsColorado39
J. RobertsonDallas37
P. BergeronBoston78
D. PastrnakBoston34
R. GravesNJ34

All-time best plus minus for career

Larry Robinson722
Bobby Orr582
Ray Bourque527
Wayne Gretzky520
Bobby Clarke507
Serge Savard462
Denis Potvin456
Nicklas Lidstrom450
Bryan Trottier449
Brad McCrimmon448

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Welcome to Hockey Answered: a resource for anyone curious to learn & understand more about the great game of hockey.

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