Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition
By Rob Aquino
Last week we took a unique look at combination stats – an attempt at answering the question of who might have the best combination of points and penalty minutes in the NHL this season. That seemed to go over well so I’d like to introduce another statistic to the formula that many leagues use – “plus-minus” (+/-). For the uninitiated, plus-minus is simple: if you’re on the ice when your team scores an even-strength or short-handed goal, you are awarded a “plus” – indicating that on some level you had the good hockey sense to contribute to your team’s goal - in theory. On the other hand, if you are on the ice when your team is scored against at even-strength or when your team is on the power-play, you’ll receive a “minus.” Meaning you stink.
OK, that’s obviously facetious and simplistic. The idea is to eventually paint an overall picture of a player’s contributions to the team’s success in a different way than mere goals and assists.
As has been noted by many, the plus-minus stat is decent when comparing between players on one team but since it is incredibly team-dependent, it’s a bit disingenuous to compare players on drastically different teams like, for example, Ottawa and Pittsburgh. Actually, Dany Heatley would be a good example: in each of his last two seasons he was a -8 for Atlanta, this year he’s already a fantastic +25. While I’m willing to accept that his game has improved, I’m much more willing to accept that dramatic and sudden difference as a function of his vastly improved teammates.
Historical stats for plus-minus are spotty at best, but the records are fun to examine: on the plus side, the great Bobby Orr logged an unbelievable +124 in 1970-71. Nobody will argue against Orr being one of the sport’s all time greats, but that total was obviously supplemented by his awesome team that year - the Bruins scored 399 goals in total, led by Phil Esposito and his then-record 76 goals. On the negative side of the ledger, in the 1974-75 season the Washington Capitals’ Bill Mikkelson grossed an unreal -82! In fairness, that team was historically awful – I still recall a 14-2 drubbing the Buffalo Sabres put on them around Christmas time that year – one of 67 losses for the Caps in their inaugural season.
In the end, we’re not here to debate the merits of the stat – it is what it is, and it’s used in a lot of expanded fantasy leagues. Finding who has the best +/- is easy, obviously – that would be everyone playing for Ottawa. Five of the top seven are Senators. But who are some of the unsung players that are contributing in the +/- realm and also putting up traditional points? Ah – once again we turn to the trusty spreadsheet (all stats as of Tuesday afternoon, December 20th) – many multiple-stat leagues simply use a player’s +/- total, so I’ve created a few queries that take that value. If we simply combine points and +/-, the top of the list isn’t surprising – Ottawa’s “Pizza Line” of Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson, and Jason Spezza take up the top three spots. But the true overall combination would be if we re-introduce penalty minutes to the mix…let’s take a close look just a little ways down the list to find some real sleepers that at first glance you may have ignored, but are putting up good combo numbers:
Arron Asham, Right Wing, New York Islanders
Islanders’ winger Arron Asham is probably flying under the radar of a lot of leagues. Asham came out of Red Deer in the Western Hockey League as a big-time scorer – in his last two seasons he averaged 44 goals and over 1.4 points per game. He also averaged 150 penalty minutes over his four seasons with the Rebels. After being drafted in the third round by Montreal in 1996 he spent parts of a few seasons with Montreal, mostly bouncing up and down between the Canadiens and the American Hockey League. Only after being dealt to the Islanders in 2002 was he given a bigger shot, finally playing a full season in the NHL. Yet his high point total for a season is only 34, so before this year he clearly has not capitalized on what talents he obviously has.
This season Asham has 20 points in 31 games, not a bad total but not enough to really stick out. In combination leagues, however, Asham should be considered an elite player. He is one of relatively few plus-players on the Islanders team, at a +5. Add in his 68 penalty minutes and the combination puts Asham at 21st in the league. Asham has been playing with Alexei Yashin and Miroslav Satan, two well-known names to be sure - good offensive talent there, yet also very notorious for disappearing in crucial situations. At any rate, that’s what passes for the Islanders’ top line these days so if they get any opportunities, Asham will likely cash in and he has of late, scoring five points in his last four games.
Steve Begin, Center, Montreal Canadiens
First of all, let’s not kid ourselves – if you’re in a straight points league, Steve Begin is never going to be your guy. As a junior in the always offensive-minded Quebec Junior League, his high in points was 46 – not terrible but Mario Lemieux wasn’t exactly worried about his record. Scoring goals isn’t Begin’s game; he’s an energy-player – a third line player who has a role of playing tight defense and occasionally chipping in on the offensive end. He has also become one of Montreal’s top face-off men.
Yet if you’re in a combination league there are some good numbers associated with Begin - thus far this season in 31 games he’s tallied 12 points and is a +3. His 79 penalty minutes are what boosts him to a strong 28th in the league on our combined list. He has recently lined up with Pierre Dagenais and Michael Ryder; lining up with Ryder might help Begin get a few extra points. Begin is a fan and coaching favorite and will continue to get ice time for the Habs.
Ethan Moreau, Left Wing, Edmonton Oilers
At 34th in the league comes another surprise - Oilers winger Ethan Moreau. Moreau was a high draft pick by Chicago in 1994 (14th overall) after a big season in junior with 44 goals – he scored 82 goals in his final 121 games in the Ontario Hockey League. He never retained the scoring touch once he turned pro; being mostly used in a defensive forward or checking role. He’s carved out a pretty decent if unspectacular career for himself, mostly with the Oilers over the past six or so years. This year he’s actually on pace to beat his career high in points (32) - in 34 games this year he’s scored 19 points, and is a +8 with 51 penalty minutes. He is also tied for the league lead in shorthanded goals with three.
The Oilers have a strong team this year, and are right in the mix of the most competitive division in the league – Moreau is a crucial element on Edmonton’s checking line and I expect him to continue to get quality ice time in all crucial situations. Don’t count on him for more than 40 points overall, but the combination of his occasional offensive contributions combined with his excellent defensive play (and time in the box) will make him a solid depth player in your combined league.
Here are a few defensive quick shots - non-household names to file away in the “quality depth” category:
-Chicago’s Jaroslav Spacek - currently with 19 points and 52 penalty minutes, and is a +6.
-Ruslan Salei of Anaheim is another all-around sleeper with 12 points, 54 penalty minutes, and a team-high +12 rating.
-Andrei Meszaros of Ottawa has a league-high +25 as of December 21st, and add 15 points with 22 penalty minutes and you’ve got one of the better defenseman in the league.
-I’d also like to make note of Philadelphia defenseman Joni Pitkanen – he was having a terrific season until he tore his abdominal muscle; with 23 points in 25 games, a +18 and 42 penalty minutes, he is still 16th in the entire league (third highest defenseman) in our combination formula. Pitkanen is expected to be out until at least mid-January. The second-year player has nearly bested his rookie point total (27) already and if you have him on IR don’t let him go – he’ll be one of the Flyers’ most valuable players for the second half of the season.
That’s it for this week – next week we’ll do a little midseason fantasy review, with some surprises and disappointments at the season halfway point. I’ll go over my recommendations thus far this year and I’ll let you know if I feel if they’re still worth picking up (or if you should have ignored me all along).
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