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Modernization of the neutral zone trap

The year was 2000. The series was between the Dallas Stars and the New Jersey Devils, and if you weren’t a fan of either team, that Stanley Cup matchup likely made you bored out of your mind.

This wasn’t because these two teams lacked recognizable players or because they played in uninteresting markets. No, the ’00 Finals bled interest in hockey because of the strategies these two teams displayed. Clutch ‘n’ grab hockey and the 1-2-2 neutral zone trap were at their pinnacle and they were limiting this sport’s potential, so much so that the league was determined to kill these tactics with new rules five summers later.

But did they succeed as the experts predicted?

That my fellow suits and work boots is up for debate.

Back in the mid to late 90’s and early 2000’s the correct question to ask was, which teams use the trap and which teams do not? However, in today’s NHL the better question is, when do teams use the trap?

Almost every team in the NHL uses a neutral zone trap at some point during the game. What separates one team from another system-wise is how often they use that trap.

Prior to the lockout, the Devils, Stars, & Panthers to name a few, all clogged up the neutral zone for most of the game and almost all of even-strength time. These days time spent in the neutral zone fluctuates depending on several factors.

Some teams will trap once they have the lead. Other teams will trap at the end of each period regardless of the score. More moderate teams will trap when they do not get the puck in deep enough to work their aggressive forecheck. And finally, even those “north/south” puck pursuit teams like the Rangers will trap when they are simply changing lines. Well the smart ones do anyway.

The point is the trap has evolved, but for some reason people’s perception of it hasn’t. So when I read that Zach Parise would be better off on a non-trapping team, or that the league should make more rules to undermine the trap’s effectiveness, I just laugh. People still aren’t getting it.

The game has changed and it is becoming increasingly difficult to paint players or coaches and their respective systems with broad strokes. So whether you’re the Bruins playing a 1-4, the Coyotes playing a 1-2-2, or the Lightning playing a 1-3-1, a lot of it is just hyperbole. The truth is, the days of clogging up the neutral zone for the entire game may be over, but variations of these formations live on.

***Side note: If you haven’t read our chalk talks on hockey systems I humbly suggest you do so now.

15 Responses to “Modernization of the neutral zone trap”

  1. Matt J says:

    Tough to say if it’s gone completely as a strategy. Lightning had success with their 1-3-1 last year and the oilers made it to game 7 of the Stanley cup in 2006. Teams will try variations of the strategy and will probably continue.

    Thing that gets me about the rangers is when they get one goal lead they seem pretty content to not score again. That 2-0 win against the Devils comes to mind. At times this back fired on them to. The loss to the Hawks in Chicago comes to mind. The 04′ lightning almost didn’t make it to the cup finals because of their game 6 collapse playing the flyers in the conference finals. Maybe they went soft because they thought it’d be easy, or the Flyers broke through the system.
    I can see the Rangers losing some games in the playoffs because of not wanting to bury an opponent and I hope I’m wrong about that.

    • The Suit says:

      Well the trap is not completely gone as a strategy. As I mentioned in the post teams are just using it at different points in the game and in different variations such as the 1-4, 1-2-2, 1-3-1, 2-3, etc.

      As for the Rangers, Torts has said he wants his team pressuring the puck and being aggressive, even with the lead. We saw that on 24/7 and you can see it on the ice with how he lets his defensemen join the rush.

      The inconsistent scoring we’re seeing has more to do with a lack of finish from some of our players. Not because of systems.

      • Matt J says:

        I agree that it’s a finishing problem as well. But players sometimes look afraid to try to score. They sometimes look as if they lack confidence.

        Agree about defenseman joining the rush as well. In today’s NHL it’s tough enough for forwards to score so it’s important to have defenseman with offensive ability. Rangers outside of MDZ and Mcdonagh lack defenseman with decent offensive skill set. Scoring goals on the Rangers requires a team effort. like most teams the Rangers lack players who can score all by themselves.

        • Dave says:

          Being afraid to score has nothing to do with the system. It has to do with a player’s mind.

          For example, there are many times where I wish Del Zotto would shoot instead of pass. That’s not a system issue.

          • The Suit says:

            Indeed. You can tell when things are system related based on body positioning.

            Ideally, the Rangers want to outnumber a team down low. So there should be three guys forming a triangle attacking the puck carrier.

            If they get the puck and make a bad pass, it’s not a system breakdown, it’s a mistake on the player’s part. The system is what put them in position cause the turnover.

    • Dave says:

      The premise of the post is that it’s not dead…it’s just altered. As the game evolves, coaching strategies evolve.

  2. Justin says:

    Great post Suit. It’s been a completely different game from a systems perspective since the lock-out. It’s great to see it broken down and get a better understanding of how the concept has evolved.

  3. JW says:

    Suit, do you think if the NHL decides to put the red-line back in or kill the trapezoid to eleviate some of the injuries we are seeing, it would also open the door for more neutral zone trapping?

    • The Suit says:

      Great question. There’s a lot of debate going on about that, but I believe having the red line back would encourage more teams to just plop guys in the neutral zone for extended periods of time, as opposed to how things are now with traps being very situation oriented.

      As for removing the trapezoid, it would no doubt encourage some of the better puck handling goalies to act as a 3rd defender on dump ins. In my opinion, this would definitely inhibit teams like the Rangers to work their forecheck/dump & chase strategy, which is the main tactic used to counter traps.

  4. Andy P says:

    Actually this whole article is based on a lot of stereotype and not a lot of knowledge about the trap in general. You lump all trapping teams together when in essence, trapping teams rarely won. The is/was a world of difference between those Devils teams and say, the Panthers team you talked about. The Devils were a high skill team, with great forwards, great defense and the greatest goalie ever to play the game. They employed the trap like NFL teams employ the blitz, as a surprise to make sure the opponents didn’t know when it was coming, then to strike for a quick score. You left out of the article several key things…New Jersey never “clutched and grabbed” that was the way poorer teams imitated the trap. New Jersey was the second highest scoring team of the 90’s and early 2000’s, and probably most importantly you failed to mention that after the rules changes the Devils were the least penalized team for interference infractions. There was the trap of the Candiens who won all of those cups (they way Jersey and other skilled teams used it) and there was the bastardized version that the less skilled teams used that gave it a bad name. What was accurate in this article was the fact that it never really went away and teams with the skill players still use it. The trap is beatable by simply passing back and then around it, so instead of outlawing it, force the players to change their offensive mindset. The Flyers were so used to playing the Devils, they frequently “broke” the trap with a quick back pass, followed by an outlet to the opposing boards. The Trapezoid had nothing to do with the trap, it simply hampered the better puck handling goaltenders from quickly getting dumped pucks out of the zone, but, probably quashed some breakaways now that the red line is gone. They need to remove the trapezoid to open up the game for puck handling goalies now.

    • The Suit says:

      Unfortunately you missed the entire point of this article. This wasn’t meant to shit on the trap as a tactic, I was just saying that a variation of the trap still exists.

      Go back and watch old videos of the Devils and tell me that they didn’t clutch and grab. You are sorely mistaken my friend.

      The blitz you are referring to has to do with the Devils ability to convert on transition rushes, which was about their play with the puck, not their play with out the puck…or in other words when they were trapping.

      I have written extensively about how to beat the trap in my other systems posts and talked in more detail about the x’s and o’s. I suggest you read up.

      • TJ says:

        Then explain why – during those years – the Devils were consistently (maybe even ALWAYS, I forget) in the Top 5 in least minor penalties taken. Explain that one.

        Was their a conspiracy by the NHL to reward the Devils? I doubt that.

        • The Suit says:

          Conspiracy? Haha no. Again you are missing the point of the post. THIS IS NOT TO SHIT ON THE DEVILS.

          With that said, the league didn’t really enforce penalizing those tactics back then. Tactics most frequently used in the neutral zone to hamper rushes.

          Were the Devils the only team to clutch and grab? Of course not. But the league changed the rules at the lock out for a reason.

  5. hull11 says:

    Andy P and all of us-

    Be careful of absolutes in this and any discussion- whatever your stats show- for starters you lost me when you called Brodeur the greatest goalie ever-not so fast; that is not a slam dunk by any means; also, I don’t know which Montreal team you are referring to (if you are referring to LeFleur’s era) I don’t get it.

    I played NCAA hockey in the 70s it was a tough business especially for an American; earlier I spent some time playing in the Quebec “hatchet leagues”-if you got your stick too close to a French Canadian’s face he’d take your head off.

    The NHL was a war zone. Bobby Hull’s slap shot kept Giacomin up all night and forced a few goalies to take an early retirement. Earlier on it was a nuclear war. I skated with Boom Boom Geffreon, Frank and Peter Mahovolich and a host of other NHLers and I saw the battles those goalies of that era endured. Do you have a stat for courage? John Ferguson would have chopped Brodeur up (who wouldn’t be wearing a mask) and eaten him for lunch. Stopping the puck was only one of a goalies problems-survival was right up there too.

    As an aside, the greatest goalie I ever saw? Tretiyak, hands down; I had a cigarette with him-alot of them (meaning pro hockey players) smoked believe it or not, when he was in Canada with the Russian team all of whom by the way would have stared at you blankly if you tried to discuss any of these tactics-in Russian-and then gone on to play like they had the puck on a string and eyes in the back of their heads-rumor was by the way they intensely hated the coach, couldn’t go to the bathroom without someone watching so they wouldn’t defect and had grown quite attached to the Vodka they found. Canada won, of course and ironically a lot of these tactics and positional plays come out of the Russian Army team’s playbook.

    So, when I hear trap etc. (personally, I think Devils whatever the stats) I think give me/ Rangers two defensemen with very heavy shots from the point Boyle standing in front of the goalie with Callahan to work his magic and I’ve found heaven.

    To say that there is a misunderstanding of the trap or otherwise misses the point. This is intelligent, passionate hockey writing going on here. I am biting my tongue trying to avoid smacking down any Devils talk but I let the cat out of the bag.