Front Line: Factoring in plus/minus

Updated: January 22, 2013, 8:24 PM ET
By Sean Allen | Special to ESPN.com

Plus/minus doesn't get enough discussion in the fantasy hockey realm, and there are a number of good reasons for that. First off, it's fickle. Plus/minus will ebb and flow at different times, for different players and in different situations.

Another big problem is that it is in no way tied directly to a player's offensive or defensive ability. Pluses and minuses are handed out in this statistical category for literally "just being there." A player can be on the opposite side of the ice, have no relevance on a goal at either end and have his plus/minus impacted.

It's also difficult to predict, which is why the standard fantasy hockey response for plus/minus is something along the lines of "ignore it, unless it's a significant value away from even."

Finally, it's a rare fantasy sports category that can be counted both positively and negatively. There aren't many other examples in the common fantasy sports where a category can be both a good and bad thing.

But I am here to explain why plus/minus should get more attention from you:

The ESPN Player Rater is one of the best fantasy tools on the market when it comes to comparing player to player or, in this case, stat to stat. A brief explanation of how the Player Rater works is in order, though. The Player Rater takes into account all the statistics accrued in the NHL, breaks each statistical category down to find a common denominator and an average statistical output, then applies those findings to a player's statistics to find out how much value they provide in each category. Add those categorical values together and you have a Player Rater value. For example, Brian Elliott was the most valuable hockey player in ESPN standard leagues last season with a Player Rater value of 20.94. He won by a slim margin over Evgeni Malkin's value of 20.32.

The Player Rater can be sorted by each category to see how valuable a player was in each category. Elliott, while average in wins, earned his value with a dominating goals-against average and save percentage. Malkin was valuable in most categories, but was especially so in goals, shots on goal and power-play points.

The reason the Player Rater is so great is because it gives you an unbiased, mathematically produced assessment of which player is more valuable in fantasy hockey. Obviously, these numbers can be skewed by league size, league type and specific situations in your league. But for our intents and purposes, the Player Rater is on the money in terms of assessing how different statistics and players can help your team.

Steven Stamkos led the league in goals last season with 60, so naturally he led the Player Rater in the goals category with a value of 5.87 above the average. Malkin's 50 goals were worth a 4.76 value in the Player Rater.

[+] EnlargeBergeron
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackPatrice Bergeron, left, led the NHL in plus/minus last season, but finished 35th on the ESPN Player Rater.

Meanwhile, Patrice Bergeron's plus-36 led the league last season, and his Player Rater value in that category was 3.95 above the average. Tyler Seguin's plus-34 was second in the league, and it was worth 3.73 in the Player Rater.

Looking at just one goal versus one plus-1 rating, a goal was worth approximately 0.096 Player Rater points, while a plus-1 was worth 0.110. Have you ever thought about a plus-1 being worth more to your fantasy hockey team than a goal? If you think about it in terms of the Player Rater, while removing all other factors, a plus-1 is worth 15 percent more base value to your team than a goal.

But, of course, we can't think about things in a vacuum. A lot of goals means that a player is shooting a lot (shots on goal category), helping to generate offense with his linemates (assists), probably scoring on the power play as well (power-play points) and most likely racking up a lot of ice time (average ice time). Not to mention a goal, unless it's on the power play, is worth a plus-1 in and of itself. A goal is a sign that a player is likely generating stats in the other categories. A plus-1 can be earned while a player is dawdling behind the actual action on the ice. So it's not apples to apples.

But plus/minus is still a category in fantasy hockey, and it's one of seven that can earn you points in an ESPN standard league. So how do you accumulate plus/minus? How much value can you put on it? How do you predict where it will come from?

Let's answer the last question first. Team plus/minus is the absolute best indicator of where the individual plus/minus will be generated. During the 2011-12 NHL season, 17 of the top 24 plus/minus leaders came from the top five teams in terms of team plus/minus. In 2010-11, it was 19 of the top 24 players from the top five plus-minus teams, and in 2009-10, it was 20 of the top 26 players. Clearly the league leaders in plus/minus are coming from the teams generating the most plus/minus as a squad.

Top 100 Forwards

Note: Sean Allen's top 100 forwards are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN standard leagues from this point on, not on the statistics that have already been accrued. ESPN standard stats include goals, assists, power-play points, shots on goal, plus/minus, penalty minutes and average time on ice. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

1. Evgeni Malkin, Pit (1)
2. Steven Stamkos, TB (2)
3. Sidney Crosby, Pit (3)
4. Daniel Sedin, Van (4)
5. Claude Giroux, Phi (7)
6. Corey Perry, Ana (8)
7. Alex Ovechkin, Was (5)
8. James Neal, Pit (9)
9. John Tavares, NYI (6)
10. Patrick Sharp, Chi (13)
11. Henrik Sedin, Van (12)
12. Jonathan Toews, Chi (14)
13. Zach Parise, Min (15)
14. Nicklas Backstrom, Was (10)
15. Jason Spezza, Ott (16)
16. Phil Kessel, Tor (17)
17. Marian Hossa, Chi (31)
18. Tyler Seguin, Bos (22)
19. Anze Kopitar, LA (18)
20. Rick Nash, NYR (19)
21. Eric Staal, Car (20)
22. Pavel Datsyuk, Det (25)
23. Ilya Kovalchuk, NJ (30)
24. Brad Richards, NYR (11)
25. Jordan Eberle, Edm (21)
26. Patrick Marleau, SJ (28)
27. Martin St. Louis, TB (32)
28. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edm (23)
29. Scott Hartnell, Phi (24)
30. Ryan Getzlaf, Ana (36)
31. Mikko Koivu, Min (29)
32. Patrick Kane, Chi (42)
33. Henrik Zetterberg, Det (26)
34. Marian Gaborik, NYR (27)
35. Teemu Selanne, Ana (37)
36. Joe Thornton, SJ (34)
37. Jarome Iginla, Cgy (41)
38. Dany Heatley, Min (45)
39. Joffrey Lupul, Tor (38)
40. Taylor Hall, Edm (39)
41. Gabriel Landeskog, Col (40)
42. Logan Couture, SJ (43)
43. Joe Pavelski, SJ (44)
44. Ray Whitney, Dal (52)
45. David Backes, StL (35)
46. Alexander Semin, Car (46)
47. Thomas Vanek, Buf (58)
48. Milan Lucic, Bos (47)
49. Matt Moulson, NYI (49)
50. Jaromir Jagr, Dal (90)
51. Patrice Bergeron, Bos (50)
52. T.J. Oshie, StL (51)
53. Teddy Purcell, TB (69)
54. Jason Pominville, Buf (73)
55. Olli Jokinen, Wpg (53)
56. Nathan Horton, Bos (54)
57. Jeff Carter, LA (55)
58. Jamie Benn, Dal (48)
59. Brayden Schenn, Phi (56)
60. Radim Vrbata, Pho (64)
61. Jordan Staal, Car (33)
62. Tyler Ennis, Buf (57)
63. Andy McDonald, StL (72)
64. Blake Wheeler, Wpg (59)
65. Loui Eriksson, Dal (81)
66. Jakub Voracek, Phi (60)
67. Drew Stafford, Buf (61)
68. Vladimir Tarasenko, StL (NR)
69. Alex Burrows, Van (65)
70. Max Pacioretty, Mon (66)
71. Tomas Fleischmann, Fla (62)
72. Johan Franzen, Det (63)
73. Daniel Alfredsson, Ott (70)
74. Jonathan Huberdeau, Fla (82)
75. Vincent Lecavalier, TB (85)
76. Paul Stastny, Col (71)
77. David Perron, StL (68)
78. Evander Kane, Wpg (74)
79. Jeff Skinner, Car (76)
80. Dustin Brown, LA (77)
81. Bobby Ryan, Ana (78)
82. Peter Mueller, Fla (87)
83. Mike Richards, LA (79)
84. Nail Yakupov, Edm (75)
85. Chris Kunitz, Pit (97)
86. Patrik Elias, NJ (83)
87. Mike Ribeiro, Was (88)
88. Stephen Weiss, Fla (89)
89. Martin Havlat, SJ (98)
90. Justin Williams, LA (92)
91. Adam Henrique, NJ (91)
92. Kris Versteeg, Fla (86)
93. Ryane Clowe, SJ (93)
94. Ryan Callahan, NYR (94)
95. Mike Cammalleri, Cgy (96)
96. Shane Doan, Pho (99)
97. Alexander Steen, StL (NR)
98. Patric Hornqvist, Nsh (NR)
99. Milan Michalek, Ott (NR)
100. Dave Bolland, Chi (NR)

During those past three seasons, the Vancouver Canucks are the only team to have been among the top five teams in all three seasons. That said, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Phoenix Coyotes have been in the top 10 for team plus/minus over the past three seasons. The Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers have been top-10 teams during the past two seasons. The Bruins, by the way, have been the runaway leader in the category during the past two campaigns.

As a quick aside, a player does not need to be on a team with a strong team plus/minus to have value in the category. Toni Lydman tied for second in the league with a plus-32 in 2010-11 despite the Anaheim Ducks sporting a team plus/minus of minus-8. Mark Fistric's plus-27 in 2009-10 came on a Dallas Stars team with a team plus/minus of minus-10.

How much value should you put on plus/minus? Are there specialists? There are some defensemen who could easily be considered specialists for this category, but we won't dwell too much on them given that this column is about forwards. For our purposes, Chris Kelly is a good example from last season. His 20 goals gave him a bit of value on the Player Rater in that category, but in assists, penalty minutes, average time on ice, shots on goal and power-play points, his Player Rater value was negligible or, in some cases, negative. That is, except for the plus/minus category, where his plus-33 rating on the season gave him 3.62 Player Rater value points in that category. That made his total Player Rater value 5.59 on the season, making him 113th amongst forwards. Now, a standard ESPN league has nine forward slots and a utility spot, so if you consider that a couple of bench slots will also go to forwards, Kelly would definitely be worth a spot on a roster. But you could branch the argument from there and consider that Kelly is elite in a particular category and, therefore, more valuable than nonspecialists ahead of him on the Player Rater. Wouldn't it be better to bolster your plus/minus with Kelly's near league-leading numbers than have Ryan Smyth's middling production? Placing a value on category specialists is a unique process for each fantasy owner, though, of course, it depends on your league size and scoring, as well as the makeup of your team.

At the end of the day, one of the main reasons plus/minus doesn't get much attention as a fantasy category, really, is because a lot of the players who collect the statistic are good at other things. Fifteen of the top 30 forwards in plus/minus last season were among the top 30 players on the Player Rater. Nineteen of them were in the top 50 on the Player Rater. If you have a good team, made up of players on good teams, you are going to generate plus/minus.

This may seem like a lot of research and numbers for a simple point, but it's worth reiterating. If you have good players on the Bruins, Canucks, Penguins, Blackhawks, Rangers and Flyers, you are probably going to lead in plus/minus. If you don't, you don't. I left out the Coyotes for this final point and I would be willing to entertain the idea of including the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks as possible sources. The Blues were rock-solid in the category last season, and Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau had one of the best teams ever for team plus/minus with the 2009-10 Washington Capitals.

I did some research to see if early leaders in the plus/minus category ended up being leaders over the course of a season. That didn't show much. Of the top 25 in plus/minus after one month of the 2011-12 season, only Tyler Seguin and Patrick Sharp would finish in the top 25. In 2010-11, only Milan Lucic was in the top 25 after a month and at the end of the season. And in 2009-10 it was only Alex Ovechkin, Wojtek Wolski, Mike Knuble and Nicklas Lidstrom who started and finished strong in the category.

Rising and Falling

The difficulty of trying to make assessments of actual game data versus not overreacting to a small sample size is definitely magnified in an abbreviated season. On one hand, it has been just one or two games for most teams. On the other hand, "one or two games" is just shy of 5 percent of the NHL season. That said, there are some major swings in the rankings this week. That will come naturally, as the rankings were based on best guesses for depth charts before. Now we have had a look at what the NHL coaches are planning for their teams this season.

Vladimir Tarasenko, Blues (debuts at No. 68): Honestly, it's tempting to put him higher in the rankings. His two goals in his NHL debut Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings were disgustingly good. Both involved heroic individual effort that showed off what kind of superstar Tarasenko can be. Playing with Andy McDonald and Alexander Steen on what is now the Blues' first line, Tarasenko followed up his stellar debut with first-star efforts in a 4-3 win against the Nashville Predators, as Tarasenko was in on three of the four goals. Maybe this is just overblown excitement about a rookie who has all of two games of NHL experience. But maybe it's not. Tarasenko has been playing in the KHL since he was 17 years old and is more than prepared for the stiff competition and attention he will surely begin to draw from opponents.

Jaromir Jagr, Stars (up 40 spots to No. 50): How does he still have it in him? Jagr looked like the youngest player on the ice in the Stars' first game of the season, as he collected four points in a victory against the Coyotes. If he can skate even half that well for half of the Stars' remaining games, Jagr will be a great player to have on your fantasy team. Would rushing out to trade for him be a great idea? Probably not. He is bound to have a cold streak or possibly be devalued by his owner when Jamie Benn signs back on with the Stars. Wait until the right moment before looking to bring Jagr into the fold. It's plausible that the Stars will leave Jagr on a line with Derek Roy and Loui Eriksson even after Benn returns to the team, and that trio may well be the team's top line over Benn, Ray Whitney and Michael Ryder. Either way, Jagr will get top power-play minutes this season.

Jordan Staal, Carolina Hurricanes (down 28 spots to No. 61): It really seemed like a no-brainer last summer for the Hurricanes: If you have two Staal brothers on your team, pair them on a line. Well, we are now into the regular season and, despite holding out hope through the shortened training camp, it really doesn't look like Eric Staal and Jordan Staal will be linemates very often. The brothers shared one shift as the Hurricanes lost to the Florida Panthers on Saturday. It was four-on-four and it was a brief shift. Yes, they play a different style of game, and yes, Jordan happens to be one of the most undervalued two-way players in the league, but it was worth a shot. They've grown up together. You can't simulate that kind of chemistry. Jordan Staal remained high in the rankings in hopes that the brotherly connection would be made on the ice. Even though it was only one game, the Canes and coach Kirk Muller aren't even mulling the idea publicly for even strength. But it does look like the brothers might be on the power play together Tuesday. Jordan will continue to slip in the rankings if he isn't going to be used by the Hurricanes for offense with his brother.

Scoring Lines

[+] EnlargeDave Bolland
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireDave Bolland had 37 points in 76 games last season.

Dave Bolland, Blackhawks: Bolland has crept his way into the top 100 rankings this week thanks to his new linemates. Playing with Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp for two games has resulted in two goals and one assist to go with four shots on goal for Bolland. As mentioned in this week's Fantasy Forecaster, the prospect of Bolland playing in the top six all season could mean big things for a formerly good offensive player who has learned to be a consummate third-line center. While one of his goals was kind of fluky against the Coyotes on Monday, fluky goals will come to those who play big minutes with good linemates. If you haven't already, check to see if Bolland can help your team.

Daniel Winnik, Saku Koivu, Andrew Cogliano, Ducks: This third line for the Ducks has been on absolute fire to begin the campaign. Winnik has collected four goals and an assist, Koivu has a goal and four assists, and Cogliano has four assists. All three players are a plus-5 through two games. In an abbreviated season, riding the hot hand will be a big part of having success in your fantasy league. This is not going to last for this threesome, but if you can get any of them into your lineup without sacrificing your roster for the long term, do it now. Just have a Plan B in place when the line cools off.

Alex Kovalev, Panthers: The scoring isn't going to flow like it used to, but Kovalev looked sharp in his debut with the Panthers. It probably helped that Jonathan Huberdeau and Peter Mueller were both skating circles around the Hurricanes on Saturday, as Kovalev collected a goal and two assists as their linemate. The Panthers aren't going to be able to steamroll all opponents like they did the Canes, but until Kris Versteeg is healthy, the Kovalev-Huberdeau-Mueller line is the de facto top line for the Cats. Roll with Kovalev while he is healthy and producing … which might not be for much longer.

Chris Stewart, Blues: Of all the players to score two goals in the first game of the season, Stewart is the one to avoid. There are too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to offense, and the team is not going to be collecting six goals on a nightly basis. Stewart will have some specialty value for power-play points, but his minutes are low through two games, and he is not featured on the top two lines on paper. Unfortunately, the Blues are so deep that Stewart, Patrik Berglund and Jaden Schwartz may have a tough time getting big minutes. OK, maybe Joel Ward is the two-goal player to avoid more than Stewart, but the argument stands.

Cory Conacher, Tampa Bay Lightning: What started as a chance in the top six (on the second line with Vincent Lecavalier and Teddy Purcell) has turned into a featured spot on the wing with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. Conacher has not disappointed through two games by collecting a goal and three assists as part of the Bolts' main attack. Conacher made a name for himself in the AHL last season and continued to be a source of points in the AHL during the lockout. He has the offensive skills to keep producing as long as the Lightning use him on the top lines.

Power Plays

Keith Aucoin, New York Islanders: Watching the Isles play the New Jersey Devils on Saturday and the Lightning on Monday, Aucoin's name was mentioned on the play-by-play as much as anybody else's. This diminutive AHL superstar has never been able (or been given a serious chance) to translate his playmaking game to the NHL. The Islanders appear to be happy to let him try. Aucoin was getting power-play time and was on the ice during key moments in both games. Even though he has just an assist to show for his troubles, he was involved in many scoring chances. If you are not familiar with Aucoin's exploits, he has 777 career AHL points in 673 games. Keep an eye on his ice time. It went up two minutes Monday from Saturday's game and could continue to rise.

Chris Bourque, Bruins: It's pretty awesome to see Ray Bourque's son wearing a Bruins jersey and playing key minutes on a power-play unit. Bourque found his game in the AHL last season after taking his game to Europe for a season in 2010-11. Last season in the AHL with the Capitals' affiliate, Bourque led the league in scoring with 93 points (beating Cory Conacher by 13 points for the title). Although his role is minimal in the Bruins' powerful offense, his power-play time and the chance to move up into a scoring line if there is an injury should keep him on your radar.

Infirmary

Anze Kopitar is expected to make his return to the Los Angeles Kings' lineup. That means either Dustin Penner or Simon Gagne will be bumped from the top six. The loser has little chance for fantasy value, while the winner has an outside shot.

• Kris Versteeg will likely miss a week because of a groin strain. His spot on the "top" line with Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann is waiting for him. The bigger key will be who is on the power play now that the Panthers boast at least six deserving forwards.

Danny Briere is aiming for a Saturday return at the earliest from his wrist injury. Let's hope he is back by then to allow weekly-league owners the chance to start him with confidence for Week 2.

• With Ryan Kesler and David Booth both on similar timetables with their injuries, be ready to consider making a play for Canucks players after a month of the season has gone by. The team will struggle without secondary scoring and two-way play provided by Kesler and Booth, but if they can both rehab their injuries and end up with a similar return date, all Canucks will get an increase in fantasy value at that point.

• Just when it looked like Daniel Carcillo was going to be the answer to your lack of penalty minutes, he hurt his knee in the first game of the season. Keep him in mind about a month from now, though. Even though he didn't finish the game, Carcillo had an assist and a plus-3 rating playing with Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews. In the meantime, check out his replacement, Brandon Saad.

• Watch for news on the return of both Jiri Hudler and Roman Cervenka to the Calgary Flames. Hudler should be back this week from bereavement leave and probably will line up on the second line because of how well Curtis Glencross has played. Cervenka will still be out awhile, but we may get a timetable soon for his recovery from a blood clot issue.

Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He was the 2008 and 2009 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hockey Writer of the Year. You can tweet him @seanard.