Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal recently caught up with Ryan Whitney to discuss the defenseman’s ugly plus-minus rating. Whitney is minus-nine over his last five games, which plummeted him to minus-18 on the year — ranking him 847th out of 863 NHL skaters.
“I’m minus 18 in 34 games. Obviously that’s the worst it can be,” Whitney said, apparently unaware that James Wisniewski is minus-22 in 38 games. “Eight or nine of them have been empty-netters but there’s plays I have to be better on.
“The past two games have been pretty evident, with me being directly in a couple of [opposing] goals.”
Plus-minus has always been a controversial statistic (Matheson calls it a “shaky barometer of a person’s play.”) If you’re on the ice when someone else screws up, BAM — your rating takes a hit.
If you’re on the ice when a guy flips a 90-footer into an empty net, BAM — your rating takes a hit.
And so on. And so forth.
But nowhere is the plus-minus rating more reviled than in the advanced statistics community, where its mere mention sends people scurrying for their inhalers. And the stats community is so hot right now, thanks in large part to the MIT Sloan Sports Conference. It was attended by NHL GMs Brian Burke and Peter Chiarelli, who openly discussed their use of advanced stats — or, in Burke’s case, why he thinks “in hockey, statistics are more like a lamp-post to a drunk. Useful for support, but not for illumination.”
A big part of the hockey conversation at MIT was realizing Corsi and Fenwick numbers (plus-minus style stats that track shot differential) and situational-based stats (zone starts, etc.) are more than just Internet fodder. They’re boring and painful to read about, but it’s clear they have value and more front offices are using them.
Okay, look — I like to give stat nerds a hard time, mostly because it’s fun. Easy too. But it’s obvious in the wake of Football Outsiders, Billy Beane (Oakland A’s) and Daryl Morey (Houston Rockets) that the NHL will probably embrace sabermetrics at some point, because “boxcar” stats like goals, assists and plus-minus aren’t all-encompassing indicators of player value.
And if that’s the case, maybe Whitney will eventually be okay with his minus-18 rating.