What Wins Championships?


“Defence wins championships,” is a phrase that has stuck with me from watching hockey when I was quite a bit younger.  Two late-90’s teams – the Dallas Stars and New Jersey Devils – had similar defence-oriented philosophies, and experienced quite a bit of success. 


But is that statement accurate?  I’ve gone back over Stanley Cup champion teams since 1997-98 (as far back as the NHL makes team data available, in other words) and reviewed their strengths and weaknesses, to see what things they had in common.


It turns out offence wins championships.


Of the 11 teams I looked at, every single one of them had an above-average offensive core; and with the exception of the 14th-ranked 2002-03 Devils, all of them had a top-10 offence in the regular season.


Defence, as measured by goals against, was less important – only nine of 11 teams had an above-average goals against number.  Teams like the 2005-06 Hurricanes and 2008-09 Penguins were actually below average at preventing goals, and only eight of 11 teams were in the league’s top-10. 


Here’s the full chart, showing what regular season characteristics Stanley Cup champions had:


Above Average In… Total
Goals For 11 of 11 Championship Teams
Shot Differential 10 of 11 Championship Teams
Goals Against 9 of 11 Championship Teams
5-on-5 Goal Ratio 9 of 11 Championship Teams
Penalty Kill 9 of 11 Championship Teams
Power Play 7 of 11 Championship Teams


11 teams is obviously too small of a sample to come to any firm conclusions, and there are plenty of ways someone could spin the data.  For example, over this 11-year span, not one team that led the league in scoring went on to win the Stanley Cup, but three of the league’s best defensive teams did. 


Personally, I don’t think there’s any particular reason for these anomalies: as much as we like to talk about how the playoffs are different the reality is that it’s still hockey, and the same thing that wins regular season games win playoff games – scoring more goals than one’s opponent.  However a team accomplishes that – either by scoring their troubles away, playing bar-the-door defence, relying on special teams, relying on five-on-five play – it doesn’t really matter, as long as the end result is an outscoring team.