Toronto Maple Leafs v Tampa Bay Lightning

When a topic re-surfaces that I’ve written about before, I occasionally re-purpose that article (with permission) on Backhand Shelf. This originally ran in November of 2009 on Hockey Primetime.com, and is being re-used because there’s been some discussion about Maple Leafs’ defenseman Mark Fraser leading the NHL in plus/minus – a fairly goofy stat.

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In every sport, there are always a few unwritten rules amongst the players that go unnoticed by the casual fan.

In the case of hockey, “plus/minus etiquette” is one of those rules that get governed within the confines of the team.

If the referee misses your assist, or didn’t notice that you tipped a shot from the blue line, official stats can be changed after the game. In the professional ranks each goal is reviewed, and goals and assists are handed out accordingly. That’s why a game’s boxscore is temporarily termed “unofficial.”

However, this same scrutiny is not used to determine plus/minus. It’s determined by some guy with a handful of popcorn, looking at his iPhone and updating his twitter status with “I have a handful of popcorn.” Then when he gets it wrong, your agent has to explain to every GM in the summer why you were minus-6 on an above-.500 team, when you may have actually been a plus.

“What, a goal? Oh, who’s out there… 6…52…that looks like an…11…i’d say… 18..ish…and 4.” It’s all very technical.

Since plus/minus matters to coaches and general managers, players have to police it as best they can to keep it accurate. Not all players are considerate enough to follow the guidelines, so to those guys, I say “read up.”

There are some general team rules about line changes, as most fans know. You don’t change when headed back into your own end. It’s not uncommon for players to go for that “one last rush”, and not have enough gas to get back on D, which kills your team. When that happens, you know the guy selfishly wanted to be a part of a potential goal, and didn’t care about the big picture – he won’t have the gas to defend a rush the other way.

The thinking for not changing, even when dog tired, is you’re better off getting into the right lanes than having nobody on the ice during a bad change.

But sometimes there’s no point in heading back into the defensive end, because you’re just way too tired. You’re better off taking coaches’ scowls and getting fresh legs out there if you’re too far behind the play and about to collapse.

So, you change.

If on that rush, your opponent scores while you’re dragging your carcass to the bench and letting an odd-man rush go the other way, it can be a bad situation for the next guy out, and of course, your team.

Your “change” – the next player taking your position – has already hopped onto the ice to bail you out, and you’re one leg into the bench.

If you get stuck behind someone who’s notorious for bad changes (say, Alex Ovechkin), you can end up 3-6 points lower in your plus/minus over 82 games, strictly by jumping onto the ice right as your opponent scores, or before you’re able to get back into the play.

My buddy Charlie Kronschnabel texted me earlier in the year after his first game with the ECHL’s Reading Royals, saying that he was on the second line, jumped out for the changing center, and started the year as a minus within four seconds. It’s a helpless feeling.

So, good etiquette has been formed for these situations. The bad changer will jump back onto the ice and circle for a second (preferably closer to the net than the guy who doesn’t deserve the “dash,” as they call it). Sometimes the player coming off will literally grab the guy and pull his change back into the bench. It may not always work, but you have to at least make the effort, because it affects each player’s paycheck.

At the very least, you have to make some effort not to screw the next guy out. It’s just a rule.

People get misled by plus/minus all the time – there’s just so many factors. In college, a guy like the aforementioned Charlie was one of our best players, easily. So we put him out there to play against other teams’ top lines, because he was able to play at their level. That means Char spent his college days playing guys like Zach Parise, Thomas Vanek, Jonathan Toews, David Backes, and Travis Zajac (and a half-million other NHL studs), where the third-line guy is playing random names from the phone book. How is a guy in Charlie’s situation supposed to keep his plus/minus up, even as a great defensive player?

His plus/minus is worse than a guy a few lines down … is he worse defensively? No.

So when the opportunity comes to save your buddy that extra kick in the teeth for something that’s your own fault, you take it. It’s being a good teammate.

Next time you see some lazy forwards dragging back to the bench after a long shift, and a rush goal is scored, try to catch the considerate move … it’d be a big plus to see.

Comments (4)

  1. Plus/Minus is such an obviously flawed stat, for the reasons you listed among others, that I have to wonder why any coach or GM even glances at it. Laziness?

    • Negotiating ploy. Make someone believe they aren’t worth as much money.

      • Meh, that may happen in negotiations, but it doesn’t explain why coaches and GM’s use it in evaluating talent. It’s a lazy way of coming to a conclusion. Rather than breaking down a guys play and figuring out why he has the numbers he has you just look at a – value and say ‘not good defensively’. I get that back in the days of limited video, but in this day and age you can have video of virtually any top level player in a heartbeat.

  2. Maybe the guy with the popcorn looking at his iphone is true in the minor leagues, but in the NHL, when a goal is scored, there are 5+ off ice officials writing down the numbers they see for both teams to ensure the accuracy for the plus minus. This is just a back up though in case the 2 people assigned to the time on ice get scrambled with a change just before a goal. The official ruling is, if a player is changing as a goal is scored, it is the player the player leaving the ice will receive the plus minus unless the new skater is effectively closer to the play. I hope this clears up any confusion on the plus minus stat =]

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