Lockout Opportunity: No More Neutral Zone Trap

Coming out of the last lockout, reforms were made not just to the distribution of finances, but to the actual on ice product. It was another example of an age old truth that crisis creates opportunity. If the NHL is indeed headed for another lockout it makes sense to look beyond the dollars and cents (millions of each) to other core problems that could be addressed.

For one week last year the controversy in the NHL wasn’t hits to the head and concussions. Thanks to the Philadelphia Flyers and the Tampa Bay Lightning the controversy du jour was the 1-3-1 or more commonly known neutral zone trap.

Perfected by the New Jersey Devils in the 1990s the 1-3-1 was partly responsible for the lockout. Finances were obviously more central, but product was certainly at issue for a game that came to resemble football on skates and product is inherent to finances.

The 1-2-2 version

The trap borified the game putting fans to sleep faster than a double dose of NyQuil. As a result, the NHL came out of the lockout marketing a “new” game modified to open up the neutral zone, create more offense, and entertain more fans.

Keeping with football comparisons, the trap is essentially hockey’s version of the prevent defense. One man forechecks (rushes) albeit passively, while three players form a line across the red line, and a safety essentially plays deep. The object is to clog the neutral zone preventing any transitional game by the attacking team. Of course the team employing the strategy also fails to generate much offense only sending one man in to forecheck.

In the new NHL we were supposed to see less and less of this if never at all, which at first we did. But year by year it has slowly crept back into the game, particularly during the playoffs. Fast forward from the lockout to last season’s game where Tampa Bay – boasting a lineup that includes Stamkos, St. Louis, and Lacavellier – went to the trap 30 seconds into the game!

The greatest problem of the 1-3-1 trap is its effectiveness, as demonstrated by Guy Boucher’s use of it despite all that firepower at his disposal. However, it wasn’t the trap that caused the controversy, but the Flyer’s response or more appropriately lack thereof. They just stood there… and stood there… and stood there. Literally stood there. Check and mate.

Poor Marty St. Louis looked more confused than Texas Governor Rick Perry at a debate. He kept looking back to Boucher like a Tee Ball player after their first hit. “What do I now, Coach?”

Don’t confuse Marty.

After 30 seconds the referees blew the whistle. Mind you no infractions had occurred. Play simply ceased to materialize at the conscious decision of both teams. Tampa Bay had determined the 1-3-1 trap was their best chance at success and Philadelphia had determined that they weren’t going to fall into the trap. All that was missing was a rope swing and a lake. “No, you go first.”

This happened a few more times and eventually led the referees to call NHL HQ mid-game to get clarification on their recourse! It was unprecedented and frankly, about time.

Look, I get it. It’s about winning, Charlie Sheen. I hate the trap for the talent it deprives us of enjoying, yet hate losing more. I am more disappointed by a Canadiens’ loss than I am entertained by their display of talent in that loss. And coaches are paid to win. If I’m a coach and the 1-3-1 gets me wins than you better believe I’m using it. However, as Peter Laviolette finally demonstrated to the hockey world there is an antidote to the trap – doing nothing – which might be the only thing more boring than the trap.

Again, the coach is paid to win and Laviolette said I’m not sending my team into the trap. If I do we lose. So then, how do we solve this predicament?

Let’s go back to the lockout. The NHL set a precedent on this issue deciding the game was not only better without the trap, but that eliminating it was required for the future success of the League. Hence the rule changes to eliminate it.

Unfortunately, those rule changes were indirect. The message was decidedly clear that the 1-3-1 is an illegal defense, but the action was decidedly muddled which allowed the slow creep. The NHL needs to take direct action.

Other sports have illegal defenses resulting in penalties, why not hockey? Why not reward talent rather than allow it to be stifled?

That is the intent of the 1-3-1 trap – to stifle talent and create parity. It is the admission that my team has less talent than your team (hardly the case with Tampa Bay) and we will therefore use a system that minimizes your talent. Admittedly, it is smart strategy, but it is not good hockey and it is not good business.

On the surface the current lockout out threat appears to be all about business. But it presents another opportunity to improve the game and is that not good business too?

No one wants another lockout, but if one were to occur let’s hope the sides take advantage of the opportunity to improve all facets of the game and find a way to directly eliminate the trap.


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