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The Art of the Neutral Zone Trap in Hockey


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The Neutral Zone Trap has been commonly criticized by hockey’s coaches, players, and fans alike for ruining the scoring aspect of hockey. The simple fact is, no matter how many rules are implemented by the National Hockey League (NHL) to sway teams away from the trap, it will never go away. The trap is the vaccine for closing the talent gap in any level of hockey.

There are many types of traps, the 1-1-3 trap is a type of trap which sees one forward forecheck, another forward behind him forecheck, and the two defenseman and a defensive forward hold the blueline and pressure the puck carriers into the boards. A 1-3-1 trap has only one forechecker, and it has one defenseman and two forwards on the blueline, and another defenseman as a safety in the defensive zone. A 1-2-2 trap has one forechecker, two forwards in the neutral zone pressuring, and two defenders on the blueline.

The goal of all these traps is where they do not differ at all, a trap is implemented to force long passes and turnovers that create odd man rushes. It also forces teams to dump the puck into the zone to try and get offense, which is a very tedious method if a team does not have the necessary speed and conditioning. 

At the NHL level, I have done a lot of research on how teams have been affected by certain coaches bringing in the trap system, and all of them positively impacted the teams record and goals against immediately.

My absolute favorite example of the trap working it’s magic is the 2018-19 New York Islanders and the transformation of their franchise by Barry Trotz. Trotz inherited a team that had just lost its franchise center John Tavares and was dead-last in goals against in the league. Trotz implemented his 1-1-3 trap and the Islanders ended up being first in the league in goals against and made it to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after sweeping a Penguins team with an overwhelming advantage when it came to star-power. This wasn’t a one-season fluke from Trotz either, he followed up the 2018-19 campaign with a 6th-place ranking in the Goals Allowed department in 2019-20 and a Conference Finals appearance that resulted in a loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions. In the present, Trotz’s Islanders are at the top of the toughest division in the NHL the East Division and are fourth in the league in goals against.

One may say, Trotz is a future hall of fame coach not any coach can run the trap. The 1994-95 Florida Panthers were 20-22-6 and Doug Maclean -- the same Maclean who coached only two full seasons in the NHL -- implemented a neutral zone trap and saw the virtually identical Panthers roster with the addition of first-overall pick Ed Jovanovski to the Stanley Cup Finals. In his short two-season tenure with the Panthers, Maclean produced two playoff appearances for the Panthers which lasted as their only playoff appearances for almost 15 years.

“With Coach Maclean, we practically knew the trap like a science,” former Panthers player Scott Mellanby said in a documentary about the 1996 Panthers team. “We used to run the trap for about an hour every practice.”

The dead-puck era which was named as such because of the amount of teams that used the trap saw two franchises absolutely run a clinic on the ice. The Detroit Red Wings with Scotty Bowman’s famous Left Wing Lock and the New Jersey Devils with Jacques Lemaire’s 1-2-2. Bowman’s Red Wings finished in the top 10 in the goals against category in every single year of his storied nine-year tenure with the Red Wings. The Wings used Bowman’s strategy to propel them to three Stanley Cups. Lemaire’s Devils were 14th in the league in goals against before he arrived and Lemaire’s system had the Devils 2nd in the same category the following season, kickstarting an incredible run of being in the top five of goals against in every single one of the five seasons Lemaire was in New Jersey. Lemaire would also win a cup in 1995 sweeping Bowman’s young Wings in the final.

The main caution with using the trap is it’s sustainability. Once teams get familiar with the system after a season or two, most talented teams will abuse teams who do not develop their trap scheme. This can be seen with Guy Boucher’s tenures in Tampa Bay and Ottawa. Boucher saw immediate success in both teams when he arrived, as he led the Lightning to Game 7 of the Conference Finals in his first season despite running a trio of 41 year-old Dwayne Roloson, inexperienced Mike Smith and career AHLer Dan Ellis in net. In Ottawa, the Senators went from 28th in goals against to 11th with Boucher’s arrival but more importantly they went from missing the playoffs to being one goal away from the Stanley Cup Finals despite having a roster that consisted of mostly AHLers and players who are currently retired as their depth alongside Erik Karlsson on one leg with Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman. 

Boucher is not a good hockey coach but, even he could bring teams immediate success by implementing the trap. The most common factor with most of my examples of the trap’s usage, is that it even brings winning seasons to teams that on paper should not be winning.

Another caution with the trap is that it should only be used at a level of hockey where the players are disciplined enough to play a defensive oriented game. A lot of young players are very offensively focused so it can absolutely ruin a trap if even one player doesn’t play the system properly.

The trap is a system that is often criticized but I’m of the firm belief that those critiques don’t account for the fact that putting your team in the best position to win should always be a top priority. It is a system that exacerbates the team aspect of hockey, as it requires great chemistry and communication as a unit, but when executed properly, the rewards are great and that is shown by its legacy of success at the highest level of hockey.

Edited by pilldoc
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