The Dangers of Policing the 1-3-1 Trap System

On November 9, 2011 controversy flared after a game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers. It wasn’t a dangerous hit, a bad penalty call, or good goal waved off that caused the uproar, instead it was how the 2 teams decided to play the game.

You’ve undoubtedly seen the video by now (shown below), the Lightning set up with 1 forechecker, 3 men along the center line, and a defenseman back in their own zone while the Flyers stand in protest, refusing to move an inch. The unexpected response to the Lightning’s defensive system, one very familiar to the NHL, brought to light a difficult problem to solve, and one they may not need solving at all.

As I mentioned, the 1-3-1 isn’t something new to ice hockey, teams have been employing the very effective tactic nearly as long as the game has been played. What makes the strategy so effective? It forces teams to dump the puck in by clogging the neutral zone. If a team can’t skate or pass through the center ice area, they’re forced to fire it deep into their offensive zone and attempt to retrieve the puck. The process of recovering the puck is hampered by both the defending team’s goalie and the lone defender left back in their own end. When those are your options, it’s understandable why the Flyers would be frustrated enough to call it quits. So what has been done, and should the NHL take further steps to eliminate the 1-3-1?

After the infamous lockout of 2005, the NHL headed in a new direction, tweaking various rules to improve speed and scoring in the game. Whether you’re a fan of these changes or not, they’ve unarguably worked to create a faster paced and more skill oriented game. Some of these changes have directly helped to make the trap system less effective. The addition of a trapezoid behind the net has dampened the effects of having a skillful stick-handling goalie retrieve the puck as soon as it has been dumped in, and tougher guidelines on interference have made stopping opposing players from getting by much more difficult. Despite these helpful adjustments, it appears that at least in the case of the Flyers, the NHL hasn’t done enough.

That’s something I vehemently disagree with. The NHL took the right steps coming out of the work-stoppage to ensure a more exciting product was put on the ice, and continues to do so to this day. Further attempting to remove a mere strategy from the game however, would be going too far. As infuriating as it may be for a team to play against such an effective system, it’s no cause for removing it from the game. That is what the intention of all strategies is, to make the game more difficult for your opponent, and banning one of these tactics because it does its job would be ludicrous. The onus is on the opposite team to work around the strategy, to find a way to circumvent its effects. If they can’t do so, they don’t deserve to win the game.

The correct response to this situation is one that I believe the NHL will give; There is nothing wrong with using any strategy so long as no current rules are broken, and if you have a problem with a strategy being used against you, find a way to beat it. Trying to ban the trap defense endangers the very fabric of our game. If this one isn’t allowed, which one is next off the list? Very simply, without the ability to employ effective plays against your opponent, you have no game, and the result is a boring product full of meaningless scoring, similar to that of Basketball.

It’s understandable why so many are upset with the events of last week Wednesday night’s game, a stalemate resulting in the complete stoppage of play several times is not enjoyable to watch in any way. But fans shouldn’t be upset with the Lightning for using an effective strategy, instead they should be disappointed in the Flyers for their immature response to hardship.