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Defensive dominance carries Panthers back to Cup Final


For the second time in 12 months, the Florida Panthers will represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. And though a championship banner has eluded general manager Bill Zito in Sunrise to this point, the 2023-24 rendition of the Panthers may have the best chance yet at ending the franchise’s 30-year title drought.

What differentiates this version of the Panthers from those of yesteryear? In one word, defence.

The Panthers have been one of the league’s dominant franchises over the past three seasons – they are just one of six teams that has played to a 106-point regular-season pace in this window, joined by the Boston Bruins, Colorado Avalanche, Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs, and New York Rangers.

Unlike a few of these teams, Florida’s been able to parlay that regular-season success into some degree of postseason fortune: setting aside the championship hardware, this is a team that’s already played 48 playoff games (and counting) over this same time horizon, most in the NHL.

If you have watched Florida over the years, you know they have long shown the hallmark signs of a potential champion. They have the top-end talent and the requisite depth to play with elite competition, and thanks to a late-career renaissance from goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, can win games even when the offensive firepower isn’t clicking.

Bobrovsky, and the defensive structure in front of him, are what’s really lifted this team from good to elite over this window. Florida has long been able to dominate the puck and squeeze weaker possession teams out (a la the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final), but it’s their ability to play competently off the puck, within structure, against elite teams that’s encouraging.

Look how their defensive results have trended over this timespan, focusing on even-strength play here:

That is a stunning drop in goals conceded – just looking season over season, the Panthers saw a +43 goal defensive improvement at even strength, and a +74 goal defensive improvement in all situations.

The size of those differentials cannot be understated. They are the type of results you typically only see from teams in deep rebuilds who successfully launch themselves out, not teams who have been extremely competitive across the entire time period. Moreover, it’s not just a goaltending rebound. You will notice that expected goal rates have trended in lockstep, though notably to a more muted level.

From a personnel standpoint, the Panthers have no shortage of competency when behind the puck. At the forward position, Alex Barkov’s reputation need not be expanded upon further than mentioning he’s won two Selke Trophies and is arguably the most dominant two-way centre in the game today. Any line he touches immediately turns into a defensive masterclass, but players like Sam Reinhart, Anton Lundell, and Eetu Luostarinen have also shown ability to harangue and distress opposition forwards.

It may be Florida’s top defensive pairing that makes much of this work, though. It’s certainly integral to the Panthers’ best five-man unit, which is capable of skating with any group in the league. Aaron Ekblad has been an anchor and cornerstone of this defensive group for years now; what’s fascinating is how well they have built out the rest of the lineup behind their former first-overall pick.

We know this is, offensively, one of the most feared teams in the league. Couple that with three defensive pairings that have outperformed league averages all season long, and you realize why Florida is positioned where they are right now. To a degree, it’s an interesting contrast with that of the Edmonton Oilers out West – Edmonton’s top-unit dominance is second to none, but troublesome defensive pairings have routinely put them in hot water.

Florida is not a flawless team, but building a roster with no obvious holes in a hard salary cap environment is exceptionally challenging – if you don’t believe me, ask any of the 32 general managers around the NHL. That’s where the Panthers deserve the most credit: they not only have built and sustained a force of a team for years now, it’s also a team realizing continuous improvement.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference