The malady afflicting the NHL right now is the latest twist on the dreaded trap, a particularly virulent strain found primarily between the blue lines of whatever arena happens to be hosting the Tampa Bay Lightning on that particular evening.
Lightning coach Guy Boucher has been infuriating opponents and tranquilizing fans with his 1-3-1 trap since his days in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. There’s no denying its effectiveness. The Bruins can certainly attest to that, as it took them seven games to finally escape that vice last year in the Eastern Conference Final with a 1-0 nail-biter in Game 7.
While it’s effective, it’s far from entertaining. The trap is a passive system, especially the version employed by the Lightning, who are perfectly content to sit back and wait for the opponent to skate into their clutches in a clogged up neutral zone.
Except, what happens when the opponent refuses to take the bait? We found out Monday night, and it wasn’t pretty.
The Flyers ventured into Tampa and Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette showed he can be just as infuriatingly patient as Boucher. Laviolette had his defense hold the puck in their own zone, passing it back and forth and even standing still with it for long stretches, daring the Lightning to break out of their shell and actually forecheck.
The Lightning refused, creating a stalemate that had fans howling in derision. The officials even blew the play dead on two occasions, calling for a faceoff to restart the inaction.
It was an ugly spectacle, and coming in a nationally televised game on Versus it certainly didn’t help the league’s image. But maybe the Flyers’ efforts to put everyone to sleep will prove the wake-up call the NHL desperately needs.
For too long the NHL has forgotten is primary purpose. Professional sports are first and foremost supposed to be entertainment. Yes, for the individual teams the overriding goal is to win, and the coaches are under enormous pressure to do just that. The cost of failure is easy to see with the constant turnover among their ranks. So you can’t blame Boucher for implementing the trap or Laviolette for his stall tactics.
“The bottom line is Guy is asked to coach and win hockey games, and Peter’s been asked the same thing,” Edmonton coach Tom Renney said. “So until you’re told otherwise, do what you have to do to win hockey games.”
But maybe it’s time for the league to send these coaches a different message. These systems are strangling the life out of the game. With an influx of talented and engaging young stars the league has seen in recent years and the rules instituted to open up the game after the owners’ lockout, the excitement should be at a fever pitch. Instead, the pressure to win at all costs has produced new systems that rival the dreaded days of the Devils’ trap in the clutch-and-grab era.
As the memories of those dark days can attest, the use of various traps is nothing new to the NHL. But Boucher’s 1-3-1 system does take the passiveness to an extreme, even compared to previous variations.
“In 1994 we got to the gold medal game in Lillehammer by playing a 1-3-1,” Renney said, referring to his stint as Team Canada’s head coach in the Olympics. “At the end of the day it’s about results. The way we played it was a lot different than the way it’s played by Tampa. Our 1-3-1 pressed up significantly and didn’t sit back, so there is a difference to that.”
Solid defensive play doesn’t have to be anathema to entertaining hockey. Claude Julien has always preached defensive responsibility, but the Bruins have blended it with physical play and enough offensive creativity to produce a compelling product. They’ve also managed to win the Cup without resorting to such extreme measures.
“As far as I’m concerned, every sport has an offensive side to it and a defensive side of it and teams have their tactics as far as attacking and they have their tactics as far as defending,” Julien said. “And we’re all gauged on the wins and losses, so who do you blame in these situations? I don’t think there’s any one person to blame. I think we just have to have a look at it and to me, it certainly wasn’t fun to watch, but do you blame the team that had the puck or do you blame the team that was defending?”
Maybe it’s time to stop worrying about placing blame, and instead look at ways to improve the product and maintain the game’s excitement and entertainment. The NHL needs to be wary of drawing too much inspiration from that other winter league that’s currently on lockdown, but there could be a hockey version of the illegal defense rule that forces teams to send at least one forechecker into the attacking zone to keep the offense flowing. And conversely, a variation on basketball’s eight-second rule to get the ball over halfcourt could be implemented to force teams to carry the puck out of their own zone and eliminate the stalling tactics.
There is no better event in sports to watch live than a hockey game. Unless Guy Boucher happens to be implementing his 1-3-1 trap on that particular night. Or Peter Laviolette forgets he’s no longer in Carolina and decides to adopt Dean Smith‘s four corners offense once again.
The NHL needs to eliminate those exceptions and get back into the entertainment business on a fulltime basis.