The “all offense, no defense” team is a thrill to watch and could even lead an NHL team to great success in the regular season, but it’s no way to mount a strong campaign for the Stanley Cup.
Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins can attest to that. They’re sitting atop the Eastern Conference, and Crosby and Chris Kunitz are crowding out the race towards the scoring titles.
They came within a point of finishing first in the Eastern Conference, despite allowing 2.66 goals-against per game. The New York Rangers, who edged the Penguins out to win the conference, were much better in their own end—as illustrated by their 2.22 goals-against per game average.
Crosby’s squad was a favorite to win the Stanley Cup, but its lack of defensive prowess came to the forefront. They were eliminated in round one and gave up a total of 19 goals in six games.
With 18 games remaining in this shortened season, the Penguins have allowed an average of 2.72 goals-against per game. They’ve offset that by scoring 3.59 goals per game, which has helped them immensely in stringing together their nine-game winning streak.
No matter how potent the duos of Kunitz and Crosby or James Neal and Evgeni Malkin are, it’s only a matter of time before their overly-offensive mindset catches up with them.
One team that isn’t having as much success with the same strategy is the Washington Capitals. They’re not quite “all offense, no defense,” but they’re much less defensively oriented than they were this time last season.
When Dale Hunter took over as head coach, he brought an unfamiliar defensive mentality to D.C. There was a much heavier focus put on backchecking and shot-blocking, among other things.
It paid off nicely. While the Capitals only made it into the playoffs by a handful of points, they managed to knock off the reigning Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins and came within a game of toppling the New York Rangers to head to the Eastern Conference finals.
The Capitals have still yet to go very deep into the postseason. That campaign was only the third time the Capitals made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals in the Alexander Ovechkin era.
In that time, the only other time the Capitals came within a game of winning the second series was when they were matched with the Penguins. While the 2008-09 Penguins won the Stanley Cup, they had allowed an average of 2.84 goals-against per game in the regular season.
Under the direction of Adam Oates, the Capitals have returned to similar offense-heavy strategies. Considering Oates’ success as a playmaking center for the Capitals, it’s no surprise he’s gone out of his way to use the offensive assets at his disposal.
Unfortunately, those assets are only scoring 2.70 goals per game while his defense corps are allowing 3.04 goals-against per game.
Part of the problem the Capitals face is the injuries plaguing their defensemen. Washington has been without the services of key blueliners like Mike Green and John Erskine and recently lost Tomas Kundratek to a knee injury.
While part of the problem is a banged up blue line, adopting some of Hunter’s tactics would definitely make Oates’ Capitals a better-rounded team.
The Capitals aren’t the only Southeast Division club with characteristics of the “all offense, no defense” team. The Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes are both in danger of falling into this trap.
Offseason moves made by the Carolina Hurricanes have paid off this season. They signed Alexander Semin from free agency to bolster the offensive talent of their top six. As expected, he’s chipped in with some goals, but his playmaking skills have been a true highlight for the Hurricanes.
Another major acquisition was the blockbuster trade that reunited the Staal brothers by bringing Jordan to Raleigh, N.C. Jordan Staal and his 18 points this season fit right into the team.
However, they had to send young center Brandon Sutter to Pittsburgh to get Eric Staal’s younger brother. Sutter is a two-way forward that brought a valuable defensive mindset to the Hurricane’s third line.
The Hurricanes seem to be making a transition to this “all offense, no defense” system. They’re among the best in the NHL with 3.04 goals per game but are below average in allowing 2.81 goals-against per game.
While making the postseason for only the second time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006 is enough to keep Caniacs happy, their evolving system isn’t a sound playoff strategy.
The Lightning have been in a similar situation for a little longer. They’ve ranked among the 10 worst in the NHL for goals-against per game since the 2006-07 season and were the absolute worst in two of those seasons.
Not-so-coincidentally, the Bolts made the playoffs in only two of those six seasons. In the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, they tightened up their defense and were able to outscore opponents.
But let’s not forget they still allowed 2.50 goals-against per game. This was better than the 2.85 they were averaging in the regular season, but it wasn’t enough to power them past the Boston Bruins.
The Bruins allowed the fewest goals-against per game (2.12) while also scoring the fifth-most goals per game (3.24)—illustrating that the best-rounded team is the most likely to win the championship.
The Penguins made it work in recent memory. They played decent defense in their 2009 postseason campaign, but it was clear scoring was the priority.
Can it work? Sure. There isn’t one set strategy for winning the Stanley Cup. But history also tells us that the well-rounded teams are generally the ones that make it further than the “all offense, no defense” squads.