In the NHL, a plus/minus (+/-) is used to show how often a player is on the ice when a goal is scored for his team versus against his team. Many hockey pundits critique the plus/minus as a measure of a player’s impact on the ice. It’s too simplistic, they say. The critics are correct in the fact that the plus/minus is a simple statistic, which obviously doesn’t take into consideration all the nuances of the game.
Although I acknowledge issues with plus/minus, I disagree that it can’t tell us about a player’s on-ice impact. In terms of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ lineup, it points out a number of interesting facts about this Maple Leafs’ team. In this post, I want to look at the plus/minus statistics for every skater on the Maple Leafs and share four surprises I found by studying those statistics.
Surprise One: For a Team with a Solid Record, The Goal Differential is Very Small
Interestingly, although the Maple Leafs are second in the Atlantic Division and tied for third in the Eastern Conference with an 11-5-1 record, they have a goals-against differential of only plus four. They’ve scored 46 goals on the season and have given up 42. That means that, when they win, they often win close games; however, sometimes when they lose they lose by lopsided scores.
Given the team’s good record but small goal differential, it makes studying the team’s plus/minus interesting. As I noted, many spurn the use of this simple statistic – when a player is on the ice, is he on for more of his own team’s goals than the other team’s goals? However, I think it’s a useful statistic, specifically in regard to players such as David Kampf and Ondrej Kase as I will suggest later.
Below, I have listed all the players on the Maple Leafs’ roster (except for Kirill Semyonov, who’s only played two games) and their plus/minus numbers.
Maple Leafs’ Players Plus/Minus Statistics
Surprise Two: Ondrej Kase and David Kampf Rank Relatively High
Both Kase and Kampf are at a minus-one. However, given the fact that they had started over 85 percent of their starts in the defensive zone (where the other team is only one mistake away from scoring), the fact that they’re only minus-one is amazing. At five-on-five, prior to playing against the Calgary Flames six days ago, 86.7% of Kampf’s shifts had started in the defensive zone. Consistently put behind the eight-ball game after game, both Kampf and Kase hold their own and are playing almost even plus/minus hockey. (from “Kampf, Kase burrowing themselves in Leafs’ coach’s good books … Game Night Sabres, Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun, 12/11/21).
After the Nashville Predators’ game on Tuesday night, head coach Sheldon Keefe spoke at length about the value Kampf and Kase provide defensively for the team.
Keefe noted: “It is just tremendous, especially with the way our team is with the top two lines. In the past, we have had to really lean on them (the top two lines) also in defensive situations. In the past, they have had to take a lot of defensive-zone faceoffs — Auston and John both — and play against the other team’s best players a lot, which they still do and still will — it’s natural if you want to get your guys 20+ minutes — but there are times when you don’t have to force them back onto the ice because one of the other team’s top lines is coming. You can give them a little extra break and then get them advantages on the other side when the other team has to play their depth players.”
Keefe discussed their personalities: “It is great for us, particularly with the personalities that they have. These guys are just here to serve the team and help the team win. They have tremendous value and have brought tremendous value to us. It is nice to see them get rewarded of late.”
Finally, Keefe noted, “I can feel it on our bench and in our room that our players recognize what they are bringing to our team, whether they score or not. They see the importance of it. Those guys have been terrific.”
Surprise Three: There are Only Five Plus-Players in the Maple Leafs’ Lineup
Maybe others are not surprised, but I was surprised that only five Maple Leafs’ players are plus players. These are Alex Kerfoot, Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Auston Matthews, and Rasmus Sandin. For a team with their record, that only about one-fourth of the players are a positive plus/minus seems odd.
That Rielly, Brodie, and Matthews are plus players is no surprise. Given Keefe’s comment above that the presence of Kase and Kampf allows the offensive units to start in the offensive zone and away from the other team’s top players, it makes sense. Because Rielly and Brodie are the team’s top offensive pairing of defensemen, they usually play with their own team’s best forwards.
Matthews is usually driving the offense as part of a high-scoring first line. No surprise that Matthews is a plus-60 over his career. However, a bit of a surprise is Mitch Marner’s minus-one rating; but, that seems to be an aberration thus far. He’s usually a plus player and was plus-21 last season; and, throughout his career, he’s a plus-47.
However, the fact that everyone else on the team is either at zero or carries a minus plus/minus is a surprise.
Surprise Four: Alex Kerfoot Is the Highest Plus/Minus Player on the Maple Leafs
Given his deployment throughout the Maple Leafs’ lineup, I find it a surprise that Alex Kerfoot is the highest plus-minus player on the team. Although he was spending a good deal of time as a top-six winger, Kerfoot also spent time as part of the shutdown third line as well.
Kerfoot is the Maple Leafs’ Mr. Flexible and can be plunked almost anywhere in the lineup – obviously with success. It’s also surprising that, when Kerfoot’s career numbers are looked at, the only season he was a plus-player was last season when he was a plus-two. Over his five-year career, he’s a minus-16 player.
How Will the Plus/Minus Change as the Season Progresses?
If the Maple Leafs can keep up their current strong defensive hockey, there’s a good chance these plus/minus numbers will also change for the better. That is, more Maple Leafs’ players will mote to the plus column.
Related: Related: Maple Leafs’ Engvall No Longer in Keefe’s Good Graces
All season, it seems that coach Keefe has been extolling his players to (a) play good defensive hockey and (b) start games more quickly. Over recent games, they’ve done so. If that continues, how good can this iteration of the Maple Leafs become?
That question will be answered shortly.
The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).
If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.
Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.
He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf