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2024 Stanley Cup Final Preview: Florida Panthers vs. Edmonton Oilers

2024 Stanley Cup Final
Dec 16, 2023; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (97) moves the puck around Florida Panthers defenseman Gustav Forsling (42) during the first period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

2024 Stanley Cup Final Preview: Florida Panthers vs. Edmonton Oilers

It’s always intriguing when the Stanley Cup Final pits two different types of teams against one another. The Edmonton Oilers are arguably the most notable non-Original-Six franchise in the league. They’re tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for the most Cups won since they entered the NHL in 1979-80. Two of the sport’s most recognizable faces, Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, achieved glory here. Today, a new two-headed monster named Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl bring jaw-dropping skill. While they may not be flanked by the Hockey Hall of Fame talent Gretzky and Messier were surrounded with, their supporting cast has some big names, too. They exude history.

The Florida Panthers are anything but traditional. From their location to the rats to the trap, the Panthers have never been afraid to break the mold. They were the fastest expansion team to reach the Stanley Cup Final (not counting the 1967 teams, since one was guaranteed to make the Final based on the playoff format) until the Vegas Golden Knights one-upped them in 2018. All they’ve done since then is sign the biggest free agent contract to a goaltender in league history and swing a jaw-dropping three-star deal. They are fearless and they play like it. Their forecheck is relentless. To them, the whistle doesn’t mean the end of the action, but the beginning.

It wasn’t too long ago these franchises were in the same position. It wasn’t enviable. After being swept in the 1996 Final, it took the Panthers 26 years to win another series. From 2001 to 2019, they made the playoffs just twice. Following a Cinderella run that came one win shy of a title in 2006, the Oilers spiraled into a decade of darkness. Forget making the playoffs — from 2010-2016, the Oilers never even reached the 75-point mark. For a while, not even four first-overall picks in six years could turn them into a perennial powerhouse.

Today, they share the same position again: Stanley Cup Finalists. Yet they can only remain side-by-side for so long. Over the next two weeks, one will push ahead and achieve their dreams, a tale of redemption for Florida or individual greatness spreading to the team level in Edmonton.

The Last Time Here

This is the fifth time in the salary cap era to reach consecutive Finals, with the 2023-24 Panthers joining the 2008-09 Detroit Red Wings, 2008-09 and 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins, and 2020-22 Tampa Bay Lightning. All of those previous teams won at least one Cup (Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay won two), and all except the Panthers and the 2008 Penguins went all the way in the first year of these windows. The Panthers were overmatched by the Vegas Golden Knights, due to factors in (essentially giving away Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith in the 2017 expansion draft) and out (Matthew Tkachuk‘s broken sternum rendering him ineffective) of their control. They avoided losing another sweep thanks to a late comeback in Game 3 but lost the Cup in an ugly Game 5 beatdown.

It’s been a bit longer for the Oilers, who reached the 2006 Final as the No. 8 seed in their conference, just like last year’s Panthers. Their road got even steeper when starting goaltender Dwayne Roloson was injured for the series in Game 1. Edmonton didn’t quit, though, pushing the series the distance. But an early 2-0 deficit proved too much to overcome in a 3-1 road loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Why Florida Wins

After last year, the Panthers know what it takes to win a championship. They saw it up close with Vegas. There’s a different world where Tkachuk is healthy and Adin Hill doesn’t make the save of his career where perhaps they come out on top. But the Panthers have been steadily building toward this. The first two years of their Cup window ended in convincing losses to the Lightning, another proven winner. The lessons they learned from their inter-state rivals showed in last year’s tournament, as the Panthers pulled off upset after upset. After digging a 3-1 series hole in the first round against the Boston Bruins, they almost made it look easy until the Final, losing just once.

They’ve handled the entirety of this year’s playoffs with a similar workmanlike attitude. This time they were the ones pushing the Lightning all over the ice. They weren’t phased by a weaker version of the same Bruins team they’d beaten the year before. And a 2-1 series deficit in the Eastern Conference Final to the New York Rangers didn’t get under their skin. The Panthers are better and tougher than perhaps every team in this league. More importantly, they believe that they are, a credit to the coaching job done by Paul Maurice.

When it comes to 5-on-5 play, the Panthers have the upper hand. Florida’s 55.02% expected goal share during the playoffs is the league’s best, with the Panthers clearing 63% in their last four games. Like the Oilers, Florida’s top two forwards are spread out, with Aleksander Barkov centering the top line and Tkachuk right behind him. While Tkachuk hasn’t been as dominant over the first three rounds as last year, he’s still sixth in points.

Four players ahead of him are Oilers (the other is ex-Panther Vincent Trocheck) with Zach Hyman just behind him. After Hyman, however, are Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe. Barkov is as important to Florida’s success as anyone. He has done a fantastic job shutting down stars like Nikita Kucherov, David Pastrňák, and Artemi Panarin. Kucherov didn’t score a goal in the first round (he did have seven assists, three of which came on the power-play). Pastrnak managed just three points and Panarin only four, with each scoring just a single goal. His line with playoff beast Verhaeghe and the still-solid Vladimir Tarasenko has a 63% xG share together and the only goal scored with them on the ice belongs to Florida.

Tarasenko was dropped to the third line during the Rangers series, however. After a quiet stretch in which he scored two goals in nine games, Reinhart tallied three power-play goals in a two-game span against New York. Those were his only points of the series, a bit disappointing for a 57-goal scorer.

Tkachuk, meanwhile, forms a bash-brothers partnership with another former Calgary Flame, Sam Bennett. Bennett is tied for eighth in the playoffs in hits and ranks fourth on Florida with 17.21 hits per 60, a figure only one Oiler (Sam Carrick) can match. The versatile Evan Rodrigues currently complements them, a trio with a 79.72% xG mark and a 3-1 edge in goals scored. There’s a lot of depth up front, with 2023 playoff regulars Ryan Lomberg and Nick Cousins often out of the lineup. Anton Lundell is breaking out in these playoffs with 12 points, tied with Reinhart for fourth most on Florida.

Unlike Edmonton, Florida has had lots of continuity with its defense pairings. Gustav ForslingAaron Ekblad, Niko MikkolaBrandon Montour, and Dmitry KulikovOliver Ekman-Larsson all have at least 160 minutes together in these playoffs. The Panthers’ next most frequent pairing has fewer than 30 minutes together, while Edmonton has seven combinations that have seen that much time together. All three duos are driving play, although only Forsling-Ekblad has outscored the opposition at 5-on-5.

Regardless of how you feel about Stuart Skinner, the Panthers have the edge in the net. The only question is how big the gap between Skinner and Sergei Bobrovsky is. “Playoff Bob” has saved 4.8 goals above expected, fifth-most among playoff goaltenders. Bobrovsky has recorded a quality start (a start with a save percentage of league average or better) in 12 of 17 games, a career-best clip for any playoff run of 70.6%.

His goals saved above average is fairly lower than last year (7.1 in 2023, 1.3 in 2024). But Bobrovsky has proven to be a big-game goalie. No matter how well Florida’s defense plays, McDavid and Draisaitl will get their looks. It’s up to Bobrovsky to limit the damage.

Why Edmonton Wins

Hockey is sometimes regarded as the ultimate team sport. However, some individuals can change a franchise’s fortunes on their own. They are rare, but you know them when you see them. It took the Oilers all four of those No. 1 picks to find one. But that is what McDavid has been for his entire career. Now, he’s got the talent around him capable of coming along for a ride like the one the Oilers have been on this spring. It has shown in a 31-point effort, the eighth most points in a single playoff in the salary cap era. He’s also done so in fewer games than all but two of the players ahead of him — himself and Draisaitl from Edmonton’s 2022 Western Conference Final run.

Looking at the top 50 scoring playoff runs since 2006, only two defensemen appear. Brent Burns is tied for 36th with 24 points in as many games for the San Jose Sharks in 2015-16. Sitting three points ahead of him in six fewer games in a tie for 18th place — Evan Bouchard. The 24-year-old has been a force at 5-on-5 and the power play, with his scoring numbers split nearly evenly between the two. Only McDavid has more 5-on-5 points than his 14, five ahead of Forsling among rearguards. He and Mattias Ekholm have been dynamite together all playoffs, rocking a 59.45% expected goals share, and they’re outscoring the opposition at a two-to-one rate.

Only now do we get to the leading goal scorer in these playoffs in former Panthers draft pick Hyman. That’s how loaded the Oilers are, in which waiting this long to talk about Hyman isn’t burying the lede. Hyman scored 63 goals in two strong seasons to begin his Oilers career, then shattered the glass ceiling with a 54-piece topped by only his old linemate Auston Matthews and Finals adversary Reinhart. He’s been consistent in these playoffs, failing to score in consecutive contests on just one three-game blip and putting up multiple shots in every game but one. He’ll give Florida’s defense a much different challenge than McDavid and Draisaitl, but it’s one not to be taken lightly.

The Oilers have a set-it-and-forget-it top pair mentioned above and a top forward line of Hyman, McDavid, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the other of those No. 1 picks still hanging around. Piecing together the rest of the combinations has been tricky at 5-on-5. Hyman is fifth on the team with 18 points — Evander Kane is sixth with eight. The combination of Kane, Draisaitl, and Dylan Holloway has controlled play and seen more time together than any trio outside the first line.

Head coach Kris Knoblauch strayed from it at the end of the WCF, flanking Draisaitl with Ryan McLeod and Corey Perry. Both wingers spent time in the press box during these playoffs. That’s not ideal for top-sixers in the Stanley Cup Final. Adam Henrique had two points in four games after missing eight straight games due to injury. Perhaps he’s a candidate to play up in the lineup, although he may not have much chemistry with Draisaitl. Mattias Janmark and Connor Brown have had their moments in these playoffs in the bottom six. Their underlying numbers have been much better when centered by Carrick than Derek Ryan, although the latter got the call at the end of their last series against the Dallas Stars.

The bigger worry is on the backend. Knoblauch had to break up a functional bottom pair of Brett Kulak and Vincent Desharnais because Cody Ceci and Darnell Nurse were being caved in during the second round. We’re talking 32.96% xG and being outscored 10-4 at 5-on-5. Ouch.

The big change was taking Kulak out for Philip Broberg, which has been less of a disaster but not a net positive. Nurse and Desharnais have a positive xG share yet have fished the puck out of their net on seven occasions in just 84 minutes together. And the other new pair of Ceci-Broberg isn’t driving play. It’s somewhat surprising deadline pickup Troy Stecher hasn’t played yet in the playoffs. Maybe that changes if things don’t improve, although Stecher isn’t exactly a difference-maker (especially when he hasn’t played since April 18).

What has consistently been a difference maker for the Oilers, though, are special teams. Only one team in the salary cap era that reached at least the second round has had a better penalty kill than Edmonton’s 93.9% rate (the 2018-19 Stars at 94.6%). Surprisingly, only one team in the top 30 has won the Cup (the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks, 11th at 90.8%). The Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks, and Stars all ranked top 12 in the regular season on the man-advantage. Dallas was at 29% entering the WCF.

If that doesn’t impress you, maybe a 37.3% power-play will. Only last year’s Oilers and the 2021 Avalanche have had a more potent playoff power-play during the cap era. There are so many ways it can beat you. There’s Bouchard’s blast at the point. Hyman is always wreaking havoc at the net front. Draisaitl is money from a spot most teams wouldn’t even bother to cover. And then there’s what McDavid did to poor Miro Heiskanen in the WCF clincher.

The Panthers are strong in both areas as well. Florida’s PK rate of 88.2% also puts it in the top 30 of the cap era. Their 23.3% power-play is in the league’s top half in these playoffs. But the Panthers can’t do what the Oilers can on the man advantage. And they haven’t been quite as dominant while shorthanded. The Final usually features more 5-on-5 hockey than any other part of the season. But if the whistles start blowing, the Oilers stand to benefit.

We know the Oilers’ special teams should be strong. What we get out of Skinner is anyone’s guess. Good in the first round, yanked in the second round, hero in the third round. He reminded everyone of his ceiling with a 34-save effort in Game 6 against a superior Stars team. He saved 2.2 GSAE in that game alone, which puts him at 2.1 for the entire playoffs. Sometimes you’re hot, sometimes you’re not. Skinner’s play feels like a coin flip that could decide this series.

The Pick

With generational talents, just like everybody else, you never know what to expect from the first Finals trip. Crosby and Gretzky didn’t win the Cup their first time playing for it. Alex Ovechkin and Mario Lemieux did. McDavid and Draisaitl have already proven their medal in postseason play. No one will be doubting their dominance if the Oilers come up short. But that doesn’t lessen the importance of getting that ring once and for all, especially with free agency looming after next season for Draisaitl and the year after for McDavid.

The one Edmonton team that had reached the final four in this era two years ago looked shell-shocked. Colorado outplayed them at every turn in that series, though three of the four games came down to the wire. But that run served a purpose, and we’ve seen it this spring. Maybe the Oilers would still be here if they hadn’t gotten that learning experience from the eventual Cup champion (and received a repeat last year in round two from Vegas).

But the Panthers have taken that same path. It hasn’t been as public as Edmonton’s exploits because its big names aren’t quite as common knowledge. Florida was out of gas last year when it reached this stage. Injuries were part of that, but the Panthers didn’t execute as well as Vegas in the big moments. A similar thing happened to the Golden Knights in their inaugural season against Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.

It’s so hard to win the Stanley Cup. It’s even harder to lose it. The Panthers felt that sting last year. While the Oilers were a public laughing stock in the late 2000s and 2010s, Florida felt mostly forgotten. Attendance was pitiful. Management was a mess. People loved to laugh at Edmonton then, but no one cared about the Panthers. So, this time, Florida will deliver a performance no one can forget. Panthers in five.

Oddly Specific Prediction

This is an idea I always borrow from one of the best hockey writers, The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown). The idea is self-explanatory: make as specific and semi-random of a prediction as possible for each series. The idea is his; the prediction itself is mine.

This trade may go down as the crown jewel of Ken Holland’s time in Edmonton.

If the Oilers prove me wrong, they will be the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since the 1993 Montréal Canadiens. Teams from north of the border are 0-6 in the Finals since (1994 and 2011 Canucks, 2004 Flames, 2006 Oilers, 2007 Ottawa Senators, and 2021 Canadiens).

Predicting the Cup-winning goal to come from a Canadian isn’t bold enough. Picking every player who registers a point on it to come from Canada, something that hasn’t happened since 2019 (Alex Pietrangelo, assisted by Jaden Schwartz) is better. Picking the Cup-winning goal to be scored and assisted by two Canadians is where it’s at, though. That hasn’t happened since 2001. Alex Tanguay scored the Cup-winner against that year against the New Jersey Devils, assisted by Joe Sakic and Adam Foote.

Advanced Stats via Natural Stat TrickMoneypuck, and The Athletic

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