Can The Florida Panthers Score Their Way To The Stanley Cup?
Defense historically wins titles, but in the NHL’s Year of the Offense, these Cats might break the mold.
There will be no shortage of talented clubs vying for the Stanley Cup when the NHL postseason gets started in three weeks. But of all the strengths teams will be bringing to this year’s playoffs, the most potent of all could very well belong to a franchise that hasn’t won a postseason series in 26 years.
Not only do the Florida Panthers have hockey’s best offense this season, but they have also been scoring at a historically dominant pace all year. As a result, no lead is safe against Florida — something the New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs learned last week, when the Panthers stormed back from down four goals against both opponents in the span of just four days.
If the Cup can be won through pure offensive skill and firepower, then no contender is scarier than these Cats. But does offense really win championships in the NHL? The answer to that question will largely determine how far Florida goes in its long-awaited pursuit of extended postseason success.
There’s no questioning how great the Panthers have been at firing pucks into the net this season. They are the only team with 4.00 or more goals per game in 2021-22,1 and they’re on track to be the first team to score that frequently in an NHL season since Mario Lemieux and the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins did it in 1995-96. And even that doesn’t fully do justice to Florida’s red-hot scoring pace. With 1.07 more goals per game than the league average this season, Florida is tracking for the 16th-best offensive season (relative to average) in the entire history of the NHL:
Florida has one of hockey history’s most prolific offenses
Most goals per game (GPG) relative to the league average by NHL teams in a single season, 1917-2022
|Season||Team||Games||Goals||GPG||vs. NHL Avg.|
|10||1933-34||Toronto Maple Leafs||48||174||3.63||+1.22|
Florida had already proven itself to be a dangerous offensive club long before this season, finishing ninth in scoring in 2018-19, sixth in 2019-20 and tied for fourth in 2020-21. Along the way, left wing Jonathan Huberdeau and center Aleksander Barkov established themselves as one of the game’s most dynamic duos: Their 447 combined points over that three-year span tied Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner for the fourth-best scoring tandem in the league.2
The Panthers have an abundance of scoring depth
NHL teams with the most 30-plus-point scorers, 2021-22 season
|Team||30+ Point Scorers|
|St. Louis Blues||11|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||10|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||9|
But the Panthers have found an even higher offensive gear this season under interim coach Andrew Brunette.3 (Brunette took over for Joel Quenneville, who resigned after his involvement in the Chicago Blackhawks sexual assault scandal was revealed in October.) Not only are Barkov and Huberdeau having career years — both are setting career highs for points per game, and Huberdeau has already claimed the all-time NHL record for most assists by a left wing in a single season — but their supporting cast is also in peak form. In addition to its two headline stars, Florida has 10 other skaters with at least 30 points, giving it the most total 30-point scorers of any team in the league this season.
The spike in production has come from holdovers and newcomers alike. Of the 14 skaters who were among the team’s top 20 in total ice time during both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons, 10 have generated more offensive goals above replacement4 per 82 games this season than last. At the same time, newcomer Sam Reinhart has been one of the best acquisitions in the league,5 and 20-year-old center Anton Lundell is among the leading candidates for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year.
Add in former Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux, who was dealt to Florida at the trade deadline late last month, and the Panthers possess an unmatched array of scoring talent, even compared with other high-powered teams such as Toronto, Colorado and Tampa Bay. Florida shrugs off big deficits like no other team — it has a league-best 10 wins after trailing through two periods, winning 42 percent of those contests. (For context’s sake, the average team has won only 15 percent of the time when trailing after two periods.) The Panthers’ likely first-round opponent, the Washington Capitals, experienced this firsthand during the two teams’ last meeting in late November: Washington built a 4-1 lead over Florida through two periods, only to see the Panthers claw it away en route to victory.
No matter what happens in the playoffs, one thing is for sure: The Panthers are going to keep opponents on the defensive for all 60 minutes of every game. But Florida will also be testing the limits that offensive-minded teams have gone up against in the postseason over the years. Although they are not bad defensively (allowing 0.15 fewer goals per game than the NHL average), the vast majority of the Panthers’ +1.22 goals-per-game differential is tied up in offense — a profile that sets them in sharp contrast to the typical successful postseason team. Since the 2005-06 season, the average series winner at each stage of the playoffs was better defensively than it was offensively during the regular season:6
Based on a logistic regression model using data over that period, we found that teams with a greater share of their goals-per-game differential tied up in outperforming league average on defense tend to go deeper into the playoffs than teams with more of their differential tied up in offense – or even perfectly balanced teams. At the extremes, a team with a defense that allows 1.0 fewer goals than average (but has an average offense) would be about 1.5 times as likely to win the Cup as a team that was 0.5 goals per game better than average on both sides of the puck, and nearly 2.5 times as likely as a team like Florida, with a +1.0 goals-per-game offense but an average defense.
In other words, stifling defense tends to get a team much further in the playoffs than explosive offense, at least in recent NHL history. And Florida’s own history also illustrates this fact. Both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 Panthers were offensively biased teams that lost immediately in the playoffs despite their copious skill. Meanwhile, the irony of Florida’s long playoff series-win drought is that the team’s last deep postseason run was made by a heavily defensive-minded roster. In 1995-96, Florida’s offense scored 0.05 fewer goals per game than the NHL average, but it also allowed 0.29 fewer goals per game than average thanks to goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, playing behind one of the league’s best back lines and a deep collection of two-way forwards. In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, the biggest playoff win in franchise history (for now), Florida stymied none other than the powerhouse Penguins from our list of great historical offenses above — a team that the current Panthers have a lot more in common with than their own predecessors from that season.
One thing might tilt the historical trend more in favor of offensive teams than usual in this year’s postseason, however. Offense has been notably up across the NHL this season, with the league’s average goals per game leaping by 6.1 percent year-over-year to 3.12, its highest level since … you guessed it, 1995-96. All of the top seven teams in our Elo ratings — and 14 of the top 15 — are scoring more goals than the league average, and plenty of them are offensively biased in terms of which side of the puck the majority of their goal differential comes from. (Out of the top 15, that group includes Colorado, Florida, Toronto, Minnesota, St. Louis, Washington and Edmonton.)
In a normal year, the Panthers might be at more of a disadvantage for relying so much on their offense. But as much as any season in recent memory, this is the NHL’s Year of the Offense, and the Panthers are leading that charge to a historic degree.
Check out our latest NHL predictions.