The Contrarian – Measuring Sticks

by Demetri Fragopoulos on July 31, 2016

Should plus/minus be abolished completely in fantasy leagues?

I came across a well-written and thought out article last week by Mike Commito of Sportsnet. In it he looks at the history and future of the plus-minus (+/-) statistic.

He points out that:

“Today, many argue that plus-minus is meaningless because it depends on far too many variables. These include quality of linemates, team systems, deployment, personal shooting percentage, team shooting percentage, team save percentage and sheer luck.”

An outspoken critic of the category, Brian Burke, has gone to say: “It’s the most useless statistic ever devised. If your team stinks, so does your plus-minus. And it’s compounded if you play against the opposition’s top players.”

Back when the category was first published for the public to consume, The Hockey News writer Charles Halpin expressed a sentiment similar to Burke’s indicating that “the top teams have the best plus players and the worst teams have the most minus performances.”

It makes sense, who could argue against that?

The story sites more critiques of plus-minus but one that struck a chord with me was by Neil Campbell of the Globe and Mail: “Only a marketing expert could come up with a trophy like the Emery Edge Award. A real hockey man would recognize it as what it is – an individual award that arises from a team accomplishment.”

The last one, “[Plus-minus] really was the early indicator of Corsi and shot attempts per 60. The problem with it is that it’s just too narrow,” said Washington Capitals director of legal affairs Don Fishman.

The appetite for plus-minus is also weaning in fantasy leagues. You may have noticed that your leagues have started replacing it with something else like blocked shots.

It makes me feel sad for the category; after all, it is only doing its job. It has no interest or special influence over players. Its mandate: reward a player with a ‘plus’ each time he is on the ice when his club scored an even-strength or shorthanded goal and a ‘minus’ if he is on the ice for an even-strength or shorthanded goal scored by the opposing club.

Back in the 1960s league personnel did not have the technology to do any better. They were limited by the tools and instruments available to them at the time.

As technology progressed we are introduced to new categories like turnovers, hits, blocked shots, missed shots, Corsi, among others. Why would anyone prefer using that old stat over these new categories that are so trendy these days?

Plus-minus is not the only category to come under review within fantasy circles either. League have started to give the boot to penalty minutes (PIM) and replace it with hits and/or blocked shots, figuring that those later measurements provide better results in identifying defensive abilities in players.

Even then I still look at this and lightly laugh to myself, mostly related to two of the quotes that I previous mentioned – one by Commito and the other by Campbell.

A real hockey man would recognize that plus-minus leader is an individual award that arises from a team accomplishment. Then what do those same hockey men say about win/loss records attributed to goalies?

Is it not true that win/loss depends on things like quality of teammates, team systems, deployment, team shooting percentage, personal save percentage and sheer luck?

So if plus-minus can be devalued for those same characteristics then should not the same apply to win/loss?

I do not want to end with this though. Let us put our heads together and come up with some other ideas.

The reason for plus-minus was to see which players were on the ice when goals were scored: plus-one when their team scored and minus-one for when they were scored against. Yes, I know that it a bit too simplistic, but I did not want to write all the man-advantage/disadvantage scenarios again.

Jennifer Lute Costella, the co-founder of LCG Analytics, said to Commito: “There is simply too much variability in the stat, and while it takes into account who is on the ice when a goal is scored, it doesn’t indicate whether a player contributed in any manner at all.”

If we want to include whether the player had a direct effect on the scored goal, then we can capture a positive ending by registering if they scored the goal or touched the puck. Like an assist, but it will not matter if the player was the first or sixth player to touch the puck.

I am not saying that the way assists are calculated should be altered. I am simply saying that if you want to count when a player influenced the play that led their team to score, then count if they touched the puck before the goal was scored as a separate category.

Yes, you are now saying what if they ran a screen or threw a body-check that dislodged the puck to a teammate but did not touch the puck themselves. They are not recognized and credited with helping achieve the goal. This is true and it would be a limitation of the statistical category.

Also true is that this method would not be useful in determining a negative outcome. How can you determine when a player made a bad decision like not picking up the trailing winger in the slot that led to being scored upon?

Even at that, when a team is scored on and all the play is on the right-hand-side of the ice, why should the left winger be dinged with a minus?

One way might not be in capturing who is on the ice but rather who was in the penalty box. How many goals were scored against the player’s team while they were serving a penalty? They took a penalty and their team was scored on. That should be recognized as a detriment to their team and an indication of the player’s poor judgement.

You, I am sure can come up with other things at a macro level while everyone else, as implied in the article, is looking at this through blinders. Their answer is to replace plus-minus with some form of Corsi per 60.

The best comment in the article I believe comes from Scotty Bowman, “You cannot look at plus-minus as black and white. It’s a tool, just like any other.”

You could apply those same words towards any category. There will always be a limitation of some sort. We should not be expecting a perfect stat category.

While I do not believe plus-minus is obsolete yet, it largely depends on how many fantasy leagues include it as a category if it is going to stick around.

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