Is it fact or fiction? Defense wins Stanley Cup championships in the NHL

A recent Twitter response got me thinking: does defense truly win Stanley Cup championships?

Armed with a copy of the NHL’s Official Guide and Record Book, I did a little bit of research on Stanley Cup winners over the last 40 years. While there is no doubt that a good defense is a key to success, it would appear that a good (or great) offense is every bit as important. In fact, the three most dominant teams of the last 40 years, the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1970s, the New York Islanders of the early 1980s and the Edmonton Oilers of the ’80s, were exceptionally gifted offensive teams. In fact, the Canadiens were either first or second in goals scored during three of their four consecutive Stanley Cup seasons. The Islanders were first or second twice during their streak of four straight Cups. The Oilers were first three times and second once during their five Cup seasons.

What’s more, there are only three statistical oddities over the last 40 years.

First and foremost, the Kings won the 2011-12 Stanley Cup with the second-worst offense in the NHL. They were the only team in 40 years to fail to score 200 goals during a full regular season and still win the Cup. They had 194 goals scored and gave up 179. Their defense was the finest of any Cup winner since the 1990s, but it wasn’t the best in the last 40 years.

The 1973-74 Philadelphia Flyers gave up only 164 goals, but they scored 273 goals to rank fifth. The 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens gave up 171 goals, but they scored 387 to rank first. The 1975-76 Canadiens gave up 174 goals, but they scored 337 to rank 4th. More recently, the 1998-99 Dallas Stars gave up 168 goals, but scored 236 to rank eighth. The 2002-03 New Jersey Devils gave up 166 goals and scored 216 to rank 13th.

Apart from the Kings, the Isles of 1982-83 and the Devils of 2002-03 are the only Cup winners in the last 40 years to rank outside the top 10 in scoring. The Isles were 15th in a 21-team-league. The Devils were 13th in a 30-team league.

It’s difficult to compare eras, with the Oilers’ holding the top five season scoring marks during the run-and-gun 1980s. Their record of 446 goals might never be broken. But even the teams of the so-called Dead Puck Era of 1995-2004 still had Stanley Cup winners who were at or near the top of the league offensively.

The bottom line is the best teams tend to score more and give up fewer goals than the weaker ones. So, does defense win championships? Yes, but it would be ignoring the evidence to believe that defense is the only way to win Cups. Offense plays a critically important role in a team’s success, too. After all, the name of the game is scoring more goals than the opposition.

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  • aeneid

    So True.