Defense wins Championships – or does it?

If a team can’t score it can’t win, right? However, does that mean that your defense needs to be Top 5 to win the Cup?

In the light of the first week of free agency, Washington fans watched as five defensemen that could have potentially helped their club significantly opt to sign with other clubs.  Two such defensemen signed with their hated rival Pittsburgh. Needless to say, the aftermath has been less than pretty amongst Caps fans. Cries of lamentation could be heard for miles. The gnashing of teeth so violent, children in nearby cities wept in confused terror. Finally the lone cry of “Curse you George McPhee!” resounded throughout the empty buildings of our nation’s capitol, settling the dust on Day 1 of Free Agency on a disparaging note. All of this tumult spawned from the old adage “defense wins championships” and the perception of a missed opportunity passing Capitals by… but did it?

Determine the balance, after the jump.

Now, it seems to be common knowledge that you cannot win a championship in a professional sport and not play great defense. Certainly if you excel at defense it can’t hurt, but is it really what “wins” the championships? Obviously if you can’t score you can’t win a game, so that pretty much makes the statement “defense wins championships” a double edged sword. While stopping your opponent from scoring is a good thing, if your team can’t score, you still can’t win. So now it becomes the delicate dance of putting the right pieces together and finding balance. Certainly you cannot ignore one component of the game entirely, as again: if you can’t score, you can’t win, and likewise if you can’t stop your opponent from scoring more goals than you, you can’t win.

So we turn our heads to the acquisitions, or lack thereof, for the Capitals on Day 1 of the free agency. Certainly either the acquisition of Anton Volchenkov, Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Dan Hamhuis or Henrik Tallinder could have helped the Capitals improve their defense. Looking at the Capitals objectively, last year they had the best offense in the league and a middle of the road defense so an upgrade at the defense really would have helped. Supposedly the additions of Karl Alzner and John Carlson will be those upgrades, though whether it is enough to push this team over the top is the question. In the event that it is… saving that cap space to give pay outs to those players come contract time will look like incredibly well executed planning. However, more pressing is the desire to win the Stanley Cup and the question becomes, are the Capitals good enough on offense and defense to win the Cup? Since the notable free agent signings have all been defensive, and that is the Capitals current shortcoming, let’s talk about the defense of the past Stanley Cup winners since the lockout.

2009-2010 Stanley Cup Winner Chicago Blackhawks – Winners in 6 games over PHI, they averaged 4.17 Goals For, while averaging 3.67 Goals Against. Certainly not the stingy defense that fans and players clamored over, and certainly not a case for defense winning a championship as those numbers are all out offense. Notably, this offensive production was against the highly vaunted Philadelphia defense, which is being touted as the best defense in the Eastern Conference, prior to the beginning of the 2010-11 Season.

2008-2009 Stanley Cup Winner Pittsburgh Penguins – Winners in 7 games over DET, they averaged a lowly 2 Goals For, while averaging 2.43 Goals Against. This is certainly an example of defense winning championships as on a whole they were outscored by their opponents. Most notably by almost .5 Goals per Game, but I will come back to that.

2007-2008 Stanley Cup Winner Detroit Red Wings – Winners in 6 games over PIT, they averaged a solid 2.83 Goals For, while averaging a smothering 1.67 Goals Against. This is certainly another example of defense winning championships, stymieing the Penguins on defense while jumping out to a commanding lead in the series through offense in 3-0 and 4-0 wins.

2006-2007 Stanley Cup Winner Anaheim Ducks – Winners in 5 games over OTT, they averaged a dynamic 3.2 Goals For, while averaging a solid 2.2 Goals Against. This is yet another example of defense seemingly winning championships, as they outscored their opponents the Ottawa Senators by a full goal, absolutely dominating the series.

2005-2006 Stanley Cup Winner Carolina Hurricanes – Winners in 7 games over EDM, they averaged a solid 2.71 Goals For, while averaging a solid 2.28 Goals Against. Like those after, it appears that defense won the cup.
Now, you might feel that this is conclusive evidence that “Yes, you need great defense to win the Cup”, and anyone who disagrees with you is out of their mind… yet, it’s actually not. Like I mentioned before defense certainly helped win these championships, but what it really comes down to the following:

A team only has to stop its opponent once more than it gets stopped.

That’s what’s conclusive out of these numbers. That when we look closely at the teams that either made the finals or went on a deep playoff run, they all had a goal differential of close to half a goal (.5). That is the magic number for winning the Cup as just under half of the games were decided by a goal (48%). Looking at the Caps numbers specifically they averaged 3.14GF and 2.86GA. Surprisingly their Goals Against is roughly the same as CHI. Where they differ is CHI average 3.54GF. In CHI they stepped up and added more goals per game (3.54 v 3.2) where WSH lowered its GF (3.14 v 3.82) and slightly elevated their GA (2.86 v 2.77).

In the end, Washington needed to improves its output in either category. Be it offense or defense so that they could have created more space between goals for and goals against. Ultimately, neither is a right or a wrong answer, as long as you are able to consistently keep that separation. The Capitals went from having a significant goal differential +1.1 to almost less than a third of that +0.28.

The key is in consistent production- a trait the Caps have lacked their last 3 postseasons.