Although it’s been overshadowed by the long history of statistical analysis in baseball, there’s a lot of interesting number crunching going on in the “nondiscrete” sports, like basketball and hockey. A lot of it has to do with adjusted plus/minus ratings. The traditional plus/minus statistic in hockey gives a player one point for each goal that his team scores and deducts one point for each goal against, only when he’s on the ice. It’s basically a personal goal differential stat, and it’s surprisingly useful. It does have one big defect, though–as with a pitcher’s win-loss record, it’s impossible to extricate the player’s personal performance from the context of his team. For instance, the Islanders’ Trent Hunter has racked up 11 goals and 11 assists, while the Bruins’ Stephane Yelle has four goals and five assists–13 fewer points than Hunter, and in 19 more games played. Yet Yelle, playing for the Eastern Division-leading Bruins, is a +4, while Hunter, with lowly New York, is a -7.
Another interesting place to look is at players’ aptitude for drawing penalties as compared to the frequency with which they take one themselves. Drawing penalties in particular is often overlooked, but a player who creates power plays for his team is greatly increasing the likelihood of a goal. Conversely, it’s difficult to eyeball PIM numbers and spot trends–the statistic is used either as a red badge of courage for enforcers or not at all. Penalty plus/minus helps shed light on both of these problems. According to On the Forecheck, the league leaders so far are Calgary’s Jarome Iginla and Los Angeles’s Patrick O’Sullivan, each of whom has drawn 17 more penalties than they’ve committed.
The Blackhawks? Overall, the numbers are solid but not special–all of the forwards have either an even or positive differential. Surprisingly, the leaders are a pair of rookies, Colin Fraser and Kris Versteeg, each with a +6. Captain Toews is even, and Patrick Kane, who’s been looking over his shoulder lately, is a +1.
For defensemen, numbers are a bit lower in general, since they spend less time on attack and more time in prevention. With the exception of Brian Campbell (+4), it doesn’t look good for the Hawks. Duncan Keith and Aaron Johnson are both a -4, while Cam Barker is a -3. The worst offender, by far, is Brent Seabrook, clocking in at an unsightly -11. In his first two seasons, Seabrook racked up 194 penalty minutes despite getting in only eight fights; this year, he’s on pace for 105 PIM, while having drawn just two penalties in 29 games.
The upshot of all this is clearer with a broader look at this year’s Blackhawks. Both their PK and power play units are among the top 10 in the NHL by percentage, yet they haven’t been putting themselves in position to capitalize–the team has accumulated the seventh most PIM in the NHL despite not having a designated enforcer (where have you gone, David Koci?), and is 21st in power play opportunities. This is part of the reason that, while rate statistics say that Chicago is one of the elite teams in the league, the standings don’t necessarily reflect it. Better performance in terms of penalty plus/minus could be a key to a higher playoff seeding and a longer run in the springtime.