Guy Boucher loves it. Neutral hockey fans loathe it. But 22 years after the New Jersey Devils perfected it, the neutral zone trap is making a comeback.
The Ottawa Senators punched a ticket to the Eastern Conference finals this season with the help of their 1-3-1 trap. It completely stunted the New York Rangers in Game 6 of the second round, and has bogged down the Pittsburgh Penguins at times in the current series. Nonetheless, hockey fans continue to argue that the trap is terrible for the sport of hockey.
How has the trap evolved over the years? Does it really slow down games and hurt the sport’s appeal? As it turns out, the trap was fairly popular back in the day.
Many remember the 1990s as the age of the trap defense and subsequently, the “Dead Puck Era”. The trap itself has been around much longer. There are unsubstantiated claims that the Toronto Maple Leafs developed a trap scheme as early as the 1920s. It’s not until the 1970s that it gained traction.
Many European Olympic teams such as Sweden and Czechoslovakia sought to inhibit the mighty Soviet national teams. Stateside, teams in the 1990s began to utilize the trap. Roger Neilson’s Rangers employed it in the 1992-93 campaign. However, the players hated using it, and Neilson lost his job.
The dawn of the neutral zone trap appeared in 1995 when the Devils implemented it. Head coach Jacques Lemaire, who played in a trap with Montreal back in the 70s, had defensemen Ken Daneyko and Scott Stevens create a brick wall.
They swept the Detroit Red Wings that year and shocked – perhaps infuriated – fans everywhere who wanted more exciting hockey.
Even though fan and player backlash ensued, coaches began to utilize the neutral zone trap more. The Rangers, years after ditching Neilson for using it, credited Colin Campbell for using a similar system. Despite this, the NHL wanted to find a way to render the formation ineffective.
During the 2004-05 lockout, the league eliminated the two-line pass, which made it illegal to complete a pass from the defensive zone to the offensive side of the center line. Neutral zone traps countered this strategy, so eliminating the pass hoped to curb the trap’s use.
As it turns out, the trap was just as effective in stopping quick teams as countering the two-line pass. Lemaire utilized it in Minnesota and New Jersey until he stepped away in 2011. Boucher used it when he started as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s head coach in 2010.
It led to the classic game on Nov. 9, 2011 against the Philadelphia Flyers. Philadelphia decided the best counter to the trap was to hold the puck in their defensive end and wait for the Lightning to break from position. Tampa would not budge, resulting in nothing happening for minutes on end.
The NHL did not address the trap during the 2012-13 lockout. The trap was not a high priority during the strike, but it was an opportunity to at least address that no side took.
There were other strategies such as blocking shots that began to grow in popularity. When the season started, Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle ran a neutral zone trap. Toronto defenseman Mark Fraser even recalled Carlyle’s formations were exact replicas of Lemaire’s systems.
In this postseason, the Senators aren’t the only team deploying traps. The Nashville Predators unleashed an effective albeit unorthodox 1-4 trap against the Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago’s offensive chances were rare, and Nashville dominated on both ends. It’s interesting to see two of the four remaining teams use traps well.
Is the Neutral Zone Trap Effective?
There are multiple counterarguments to using a neutral zone trap: the sacrifice of offensive chances for forwards and the pace of play. Regarding the former, the statistics are inconsistent. This season, Ottawa was 22nd in the league with just 206 goals. However, before their first Stanley Cup, the 1993-94 Devils were second in the NHL with 306 goals, seven more than the eventual-champion Rangers.
Forwards in a trap do have to prioritize checking and defense over scoring. Yet in 1993-94, New Jersey’s John MacLean, Stephane Richer and Bill Guerin combined for 98 goals and 166 points. Phil Kessel had 52 points in 48 games for the trapping Leafs in 2012-13.
While some of the forwards on the deeper lines may forfeit offensive chances, the skill players can still find ways to get to the net while performing the job.
As for the entertainment of trap-heavy games, it’s tougher to watch than a regular game. Hockey is a game of speed, and fans want to watch offensive rushes towards the net more than neutral zone turnovers. On the other hand, a trap is strategy; it’s not something that needs policing. Unless a tactic gives one team an unfair advantage, the NHL shouldn’t ban formations from the game.
Fans have to enjoy the on-ice product, and neutral zone traps aren’t the most exciting strategy to watch. Ultimately, if the neutral zone trap goes the way of the dinosaur, then it needs a clear counterattack and teams have to overcome it. Otherwise, its popularity could boom with an Ottawa Stanley Cup.
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