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Campbell's Cuts: Ups and downs of the plus-minus

Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins has 52 points and is a plus-29 in 42 games this season. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins has 52 points and is a plus-29 in 42 games this season. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

When you look at the plus-minus rankings this season, there are some shocking names at both ends of the list.

At the top is Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins at plus-29. Savard has long been regarded as a defensive liability and has been a plus player only twice during his career, but things have changed in a huge way for him. Savard has never been better than plus-7, but has been on the ice for 48 even-strength goals this season, which is third in the league behind teammates Dennis Wideman (51) and Zdeno Chara (49).

But the real shock comes at the bottom of the league. Currently occupying 795th overall and the top contender for the green jacket is Carolina Hurricanes center Rod Brind’Amour at minus-27; a two-time winner of the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward and a guy generally regarded as one of the most disciplined and conscientious players in the league.

So is this a true reflection of their play this season or one of the vagaries of one of the most maligned statistics in NHL history? Well, probably a little of both.

Some people don’t pay any attention to plus-minus because in many ways it has too much to do with how good or bad the player’s team is. Where it does tell something, though, is when one player is out of whack with the rest of his team. Niclas Havelid being plus-7 on an Atlanta Thrashers team that has given up the most goals in the league tells you something.

So does Brind’Amour’s plus-minus. While the Hurricanes won’t ever be confused with the 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens, they’re not that bad. What makes his plus-minus a telling stat is the next worst plus-minus on the Hurricanes belongs to defenseman Dennis Seidenberg at minus-10. Not only that, but Brind’Amour’s rating is 35 worse than teammate Eric Staal, who leads the team at plus-8.

In the case of Brind’Amour, there is absolutely no doubt his level of play has dropped considerably this season, something that shouldn’t be a complete surprise considering he turned 38 this past summer. By his own admission, Brind’Amour is having a horrible season.

“It’s not just been one game,” Brind’Amour told the Raleigh News and Observer last week, “it’s been all year.”

It’s interesting to note Brind’Amour is minus-19 at home, which should give people an indication of how his defensive skills have declined. Teams always have last change at home, meaning Brind’Amour is lining up in defensive situations against the best players in the league and he’s not getting the job done. When Brind’Amour was winning Selke Trophies, his hallmark was his ability to go head-to-head against top lines and shut them down, but obviously that’s not happening this season.

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If you could chalk Brind’Amour’s plus-minus to bad luck or playing for a bad team or the vagaries of the stat, that would be one thing. But the fact of the matter is only one player in the league, Calgary Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf, has been on the ice for more than Brind’Amour’s 45 even strength goals against. On the other hand, Brind’Amour has been on the ice for just 18 of his team’s own even-strength goals this season.

While there’s no disputing the fact that Savard has become a much more responsible, dependable and mature player, there’s also no disputing that much of his success in plus-minus has to do with his surroundings. Until recently, Savard was one of those guys who put up big numbers on bad teams, hence the bad plus-minus.

To his credit, he has proved more recently he can be a contributor on a good team and his plus-minus is reflecting that. But don’t forget the Bruins have five of the top six plus-minus players in the league at the moment and while Savard has done his share offensively, he’s also benefiting from being in a great situation. It also helps that he’s on pace to break the 100-point barrier for the first time in his career.

And Savard’s plus-minus is far more in line with his teammates’ than Brind’Amour’s. The Bruins have six players who are better than plus-20 and a total of 11 who are in double digits. But Savard does deserve some credit here. He’s a far less selfish player than he was earlier in his career and his conditioning has improved immensely, particularly his lower body strength. He gets knocked off the puck far less than before and that leads to fewer chances against.

And there’s a good chance numbers like that are what will make Claude Julien the top contender for the Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach. Julien has succeeded in implementing a system that demands defensive accountability, but has also given his players the freedom to be one of the most offensively creative teams in the league.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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