When A Top Goal Scorer Has A Break-Even Year

This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on February 13, 2015.

Tampa Bay Lightning center, Steven Stamkos, is one of the top scorers in the National Hockey League, tied for fourth in goals this season entering Thursday’s play. But even with the Lightning owning a league-best +35 goal differential (ignoring shootout goals), their leading goal scorer has the same plus-minus rating as the team’s equipment manager: 0.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay’s lesser-known line of Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat have a combined plus-minus of +81, placing each of them among the top five in the league. A plus-minus rating measures the net number of 5-on-5 and shorthanded goals scored by a team and against it while a particular player is on the ice.

In the past 20 seasons, only seven players have finished among the top 10 goal scorers in the league and had a plus-minus rating of 0 or below, while playing for a team that ranked in the top 10 in goal differential. Most recently, Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles Kings accomplished this in the 2013 lockout-shortened season. Four of the seven players reached their respective conference final during that season. While each of their team’s top lines were merely breaking even at best, their depth players outperformed those of their opponents.

Coincidentally, another young star having a similar season is New York Islanders center John Tavares. Although he is currently tied for eighth in the league in goals, the Islanders actually have yielded slightly more even-strength goals than they have scored when he is on the ice. Tavares may get the star attention, but with his team aiming to win a division title for the first time since Ronald Reagan was president, the Islanders’ success, like that of the Lightning, may primarily be attributable to the team’s depth.

Top 10 in Goals, +/- Of 0 or Lower, Team Ranked in Top 10 in Goal Differential

Season Player Goals (Rank) +/- Team Goal Diff. (Rank)
2014-15 Steven Stamkos, TB 28 (T-4th) 0 +35 (1st)
2013* Jeff Carter, LA 26 (4th) 0 +17 (T-7th)
2010-11 Patrick Marleau, SJ 37 (6th) -3 +35 (4th)
2010-11 Patrick Sharp, CHI 34 (T-8th) -1 +32 (T-5th)
2005-06 Eric Staal, CAR 45 (8th) -8 +28 (10th)
2001-02 Bill Guerin, BOS 41 (T-2nd) -1 +35 (T-8th)
2014-15 Mike Modano, DAL 38 (8th) 0 +27 (9th)
1997-98 Rod Brind’Amour, PHI 36 (8th) -2 +49 (5th)

* Lockout-shortened season

(photo by Michael Miller)

One thought on “When A Top Goal Scorer Has A Break-Even Year

  • February 15, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    Thanks for writing about hockey in the WSJ. Always good to see our
    favorite sport getting some ink.

    Just a couple of quick points about your article in THE COUNT (Feb. 13,

    * A significant factor in the plus/minus statistic is the defensive
    matchups that the opponent might seek out vs. Tampa, particularly when the
    Lightning is on the road. I’d put my #1 scoring line out against them,
    knowing that Stamkos still might be a step slow on the back-check and
    looking to create offense.

    * It can be argued that by having to go up against the opposition’s best
    offensive players on most nights, Stamkos makes it possible for his second
    line to run up the impressive plus/minus numbers. And by forcing the
    opposition’s best offensive players to chase him (21 ES goals), he’s also
    contributing significantly to Tampa’s season.


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