Is The NHL In Danger Of Becoming Caught In A “Trap” Again???

May 10th, 2010 No Comments

As little as five years ago almost every NHL team had adopted some form of “the trap” (a 1-2-2 forechecking system) in order to compete in the NHL. The idea was to shut down opposing offenses by clogging up the neutral zone, effectively minimizing, if not, nullifying your opponents ability to light the lamp.

There is little doubt that, for the most part, the system worked. In fact, numerous NHL teams were able to perfect the hated trap to the point that they were able to turn their efforts into a Stanley Cup victory, including, the 1994-95 and 2002-03New Jersey Devils, 1998-99 Dallas Stars and 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings.

NHL Fans often felt cheated when exposed to the trap (a.k.a “the left wing lock”) as they were forced to watch hockey that was typically void of scoring, creativity, speed and flow. The end result was NHL hockey becoming a complete bore to watch, which, in some cases, caused NHL fans to stay away en masse.

In order to thwart NHL GM’s plans to put a premium on systems (specifically the trap) instead of skill the NHL instituted several rule changes in order to make it more difficult for NHL teams and players to use the trap successfully.

One of the major rules instituted was the reduction of the neutral zone form 54 to 50 feet, which improved shooting angles, gave offenses more ice with which to be creative and increased the area behind the net, which, in turn, was beneficial to power play opportunities.

One of the other rule changes was not allowing the team that ices the puck to make a line change, which can bite you in the butt if your players are tired at the end of the shift. Tired legs often make for poor mental decision making, which, in turn, often results in giving up goals.

The biggest change came in the form of simply asking the refs to call the rules as they are already laid out, specifically, calling obstruction, interference and holding.

Often the greatest source of frustration for fans and players alike, these penalties are often up to the discretion of the referee and, in some cases, are still called very inconsistently, that said, the refs call a lot more obstruction penalties these days, a testament to the changes brought forward by the NHL.

The enforcement of these rules and others forced many NHL coaches to relax their neutral zone trap strategies, making skill, speed and creativity the norm, rather than the boring clutching, grabbing and delaying of the game that is the trap.

Regardless of the rule changes and the apparent benefit to the flow and quality of NHL games, many experts felt that, regardless of the rule changes, that NHL teams would revert back to the trap sooner rather than later as, while boring, it is a very effective way to play hockey, especially for a team that is void of many star players/top tier talent.

Well, just five years after many of these rule changes were implemented it is safe to say that the dreaded trap is making a comeback and I for one am not too happy about it.

While not NHL hockey, the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Hockey Tournament supplied us with the first look at the trap’s comeback as many European teams including, Switzerland, Slovakia, Norway and Germany used the trap nightly.

For the most part you couldn’t blame any of these Countries for implementing a trap system. Given the way Canada, the United States, Russia and Sweden were stacked up front the only chance Switzerland (and others) had to compete with the likes of Canada and the U.S. was to stack their defense, hope for great goaltending and wait for their opponents to make a mistake.

In the end, the trap system almost worked. Switzerland came within one goal of beating team Canada (a 3-2 overtime loss) and within two goals of beating the States (a 3-1 loss) and, for the most part, made it possible for these Countries to be competitive at the Olympics and avoid the embarrassment of a five goal loss.

Now, with the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs about to conclude, we have watched the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers adopt a version of the trap throughout the playoffs in order to dismiss their first round opponents (the Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils, respectively).

The Canadiens are probably the best example of a team using the trap in order to frustrate, impede and nullify opposing offenses. In the first round the Canadiens completely shut down the Washington Capitals who owned the NHL’s top ranked regular season offense and power plays.

Alex Ovechkin, (arguably the best offensive player in the NHL) was completely shut out of the last three games of the series and, in one game, was kept off the shot clock completely, something that was thought to be next to impossible to do.

Now, in their round two action against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Canadiens have kept the NHL’s leading scorer (Sydney Crosby) from scoring a goal in the first five games of the series, which is something short of miraculous in itself.

Never mind the fact that the Canadiens have limited the Penguins to just two or less goals in four out of the first five games, never mind the fact that the Habs are within one game of the Penguins in the series with a devastated defensive corps to boot!

In light of the Canadiens and Flyers success one has to feel that it is only a matter of time before numerous NHL coaches retreat back to the trapping style that was so prevalent throughout the NHL just five years ago.

Excitement may put fannies in the seats, but so does winning. Winning gets NHL GM’s and coaches a contract extension, losing pretty (with exciting players, offensive creativity and end-to-end action) doesn’t (at least in most cases).

Former Chicago Blackhawk, Phoenix Coyote, Philadelphia Flyer, Los Angeles King and San Jose Shark, Jeremy Roenick, once said, “Whoever invented the neutral zone trap should be shot”. Well, JR, it’s time to get out the rifles, it appears as if the trap is about to make a comeback!

For more NHL news and notes check out my website at www.theslapshot.com

Until next time,

Peace!

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