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.