Kaplan’s Stanley Cup buzz: What are the secrets to success for Oilers and Panthers?

Forget the distance — this year’s Stanley Cup Final is as electric as they come. Two fantastic teams hitting their stride when it matters most, with incredible stories to tell.

Here’s a look inside how both teams got here and lessons on what makes them special.

When the Florida Panthers lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final last spring, their emotional leader, Matthew Tkachuk, went around the locker room and repeated three words to his teammates: “We’ll be back.”

The road to the 2023 Final was both emotionally and physically taxing for the Panthers, who sneaked into the playoffs as the last seed and then shocked everybody — except themselves. Our broadcast crew will never forget our pregame chat last year with coach Paul Maurice ahead of Game 5 of the first round in Boston, with the Cats trailing the series 3-1. “We’ll see you back here in Boston,” he said calmly, before walking away.

Florida’s list of players fighting through significant injuries last playoffs was as ugly as it gets. Tkachuk, who suffered a broken sternum in the finals, needed his brother, Brady, to help him get out of bed after a pregame nap before Game 4. Teammates helped him put pads on and tied his skates.

Sam Bennett had two separate injuries; Radko Gudas played through a high ankle sprain. Top defenseman Aaron Ekblad played with a broken foot since the first round — plus two separate shoulder dislocations and a torn oblique. Ekblad and fellow defenseman Brandon Montour (torn labrum) missed the first month of the 2023-24 season recovering from offseason surgeries.

About two weeks after the season ended, a few players, including Carter Verhaeghe, rented ice in Florida. When GM Bill Zito returned from the NHL draft and saw the players skating, he was incredulous. “What are you guys doing?” he asked. They wanted to get back to work.

Several players, including captain Aleksander Barkov and leading scorer Sam Reinhart, returned to training camp in even better shape. Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov credited the team’s conditioning for why they’ve been able to wear down teams in the third period. And, as Ekblad told me after eliminating the New York Rangers, they are far healthier this time around.

The Panthers are built mostly from trade acquisitions, free agents and waiver pickups. And each player Florida brought in was targeted for a reason: they’re ultracompetitive, and have no problem playing Maurice’s aggressive style that’s constantly applying pressure.

Maurice built a clear identity of how this team should play — it is relentless. Tkachuk told me the reason it works is because there is “total buy-in.” I asked him after the Eastern Conference finals how hard it is to play in the Panthers’ system. “It is pretty hard,” he admitted, then let out a huge smile: “But we think it’s pretty hard to play against.

Last year, Maurice said every round felt like an achievement because nobody expected them to be there. This postseason, he said the celebrations after every win and every round have been more muted. In fact, Maurice said the loudest postgame locker room moment so far was when Niko Mikkola awarded the game puck to Jonah Gadjovich, who rejoined the team after his wife gave birth to twins. Gadjovich hasn’t played in one game these playoffs, but it’s just another testament to how close this team is.

They know who they are, and most importantly, they now know what it takes to go all the way.

Oilers stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl haven’t shied away from the pressures their team faces, especially in a highly scrutinized Canadian market. After also being eliminated by the Golden Knights last spring, they both declared: Cup or Bust in 2024.

And then, it was a horrific start to the season. They began 2-9-1, tied for last place in the league. That lead management to fire coach Jay Woodcroft to try to get things going. Enter Kris Knoblauch, who has a calming demeanor. Knoblauch, who spent five years running the New York Rangers’ minor league affiliate, is known for his communication style in empowering players. One of his former AHL players told me that when he was struggling, Knoblauch prepared a mixtape of his best highlights — to remind him that he was a great player. Another example of Knoblauch’s relationship skills: Rangers forward Jonny Brodzinski, who was Knoblauch’s AHL captain, told me in December that his old coach texted him five times since taking the job, just to check in.

Knoblauch was also McDavid’s junior coach. And even though McDavid is the best player in the world and could command preferential treatment, he never wants to be treated differently than anybody. I’m told that McDavid hated the narrative that he was behind the coaching change — especially since McDavid’s former agent, Jeff Jackson, took over as CEO of hockey operations for the Oilers last summer.

McDavid fought through an injury early in the season. And as Jackson told me in December, when the team began turning things around, it was McDavid’s work ethic that led the way.

“Connor is our leader and our hardest-working player,” Jackson said. “He’s dogging on pucks, creating turnovers on the backcheck. He gives it every single night, and we take his lead. He is relentless.”

That, perhaps, foreshadowed these playoffs. I’m told that McDavid is once again playing through something — which perhaps explains why he barely wanted to shoot the puck in early rounds. He overcompensated with work ethic, and has looked more comfortable, and more his dazzling self, as these playoffs have continued.

The Oilers, too, have remained resilient. They overcame three series deficits against Vancouver, and trailed 2-1 in the series and 2-0 on the scoreboard in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals before completely shutting the Stars down.

Defensive structure is the biggest noticeable difference for Edmonton, as it enters the Cup Final allowing just 25.1 shots per game, third fewest among playoff teams. The Oilers also haven’t given up a power-play goal in two of the three series they’ve played so far.

Hall of Famer Paul Coffey runs the defense and joined the bench staff during the early-season shake-up. Jackson told me it worked because Coffey had been around the organization (as a senior adviser) and already had a relationship with many of the defensemen, who trusted him and knew him. Jackson asked Coffey if he was willing to upend his life (he and his wife were living in Toronto) to join the team full time. It’s a move that paved the way to this postseason run.

Coffey comes to the rink every day and says the same thing: “How are we going to get better today?”

With incremental improvements, the Oilers have peaked at exactly the right time.

In commissioner Gary Bettman’s NHL, parity rules all. He wants all 32 teams to be treated equally, with each given a fair chance to win. Hence, the hard salary cap. However, a big topic surrounding the Stanley Cup Final is the perceived advantages teams have in states without an income tax, such as Florida.

Compare that to Edmonton — or any of the seven Canadian cities with teams — where provincial tax rates are significantly higher, and you realize not all teams are playing with the same set of financial rules. California and New York also have high tax rates.

Even though every team has the same amount to spend ($83.5 million this season), the athlete’s dollar goes much further in Sunrise, Florida — or Vegas (last year’s Cup winner), Dallas (Western Conference finalists in each of the past two seasons), Tampa (two Stanley Cups since 2020), Nashville or Seattle. The two Florida-based teams have appeared in the Stanley Cup Final in each of the past five seasons.

These figures don’t factor in cost of living, which fluctuates across the league. Or the potential for endorsement deals, which are often more flush in Canadian markets. But consider these figures, courtesy of Cap Friendly: A $1 million base salary in Florida has a net income of $624,103 — versus $553,447 in Edmonton. It encourages players to take less money to play on teams like Florida, knowing they’re still coming out ahead.

One potential solution to allow for flexibility would be to introduce a luxury tax, similar to what the NBA has. Teams have the ability to spend more than the cap, but are taxed — and that money is allocated in revenue share to teams who aren’t going over the threshold. This could help grow the league’s financial health overall, and improve players’ salaries, which have remained somewhat stagnant.

That potential change would need to be approved by the league’s board of governors. I checked in with a few sources in the NHL league office and BOG, and came to this conclusion: There is virtually no appetite to change the salary cap system — with very little interest from owners in introducing a luxury tax. I was told the issue has been raised on occasion, but never garnered much interest or support.

That’s because the league sees way too many variables to factor in what makes certain markets attractive to certain players. What’s more, we can cherry-pick examples of lesser-taxed teams being successful (as I did above for effect), but consider: Florida has been in the league for three decades and has never won the Stanley Cup. For years, it was considered one of the most dysfunctional franchises. Success isn’t as much about manipulating the system as it is putting good systems in place in terms of strong leadership, roster management, drafting, support staff, etc.

I think even the league would agree the current rules are imperfect. But it’s working just fine, and unlikely to change any time soon.

A more relevant story to explore during the playoffs is spending outside of the salary cap. There’s no limit on how much a team can invest in staffing and resources. It’s a race that’s been going on behind the scenes for years. In the NHL, there’s a widening gulf between the haves and have-nots in terms of what they are willing to spend to gain a competitive advantage.

Edmonton and Florida are both teams on the “haves” list — though that’s a new place for Florida to be. My understanding is that owner Vinnie Viola basically told Zito there’s a blank check for anything that can help the team win (within reason, of course). That has allowed Florida to do what many higher-end teams have done for years, such as spending extra nights at a hotel after a game if it means giving the players more rest. That’s a swing of tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, every season.

The Panthers have a four-person goaltending excellence department; a reminder that there are no guidelines to how many coaches or front office members a team can employ. They promoted their team psychologist from part-time to full-time two years ago.

One of Zito’s biggest recent hires was Chris McLellan as VP of sports performance. McLellan, an Australian, holds a PhD, was previously a professor and has worked in the National Rugby League. Zito told me that McLellan has no biases from being a hockey lifer — he asks questions, and doesn’t feel beholden to do things a certain way just because that’s the way they’ve always been done. It has allowed the Panthers to try some creative things which they think have helped players immensely.

Edmonton owner Daryl Katz is equally generous. The Oilers have perhaps the nicest home locker room in the league, rivaled only by Detroit. Edmonton had been known for sometimes being stuck in old-school ways, but a series of recent hires progressed the team forward. Jackson is modernizing their analytics department, bringing in Michael Parkatti in September to oversee the group.

This week, Edmonton announced Kalle Larsson was joining as senior director of player development. Larsson spent 11 years with the USHL Dubuque Fighting Saints, and I’m told he had several opportunities to go to the NHL sooner but chose the Oilers.

Most notably, the Oilers brought in George Mumford — a world-renowned mindfulness expert and sports psychologist, who worked with NBA legends Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan — as a consultant this year. Stuart Skinner was benched earlier in the playoffs. The goalie proved over the past three games of the Dallas series (.947 save percentage) he’s someone the team can trust.

In the celebration on the ice after the win, Mumford hugged Skinner, saying: “My man.”

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