The Return of Trapping Isn’t All Bad

Flyers vs Canucks in Vancouver - 085
Photo by Cindy Andrie

Darren Eliot is complaining that more NHL teams are returning to the dreaded neutral zone trap.

Eliot’s hypothesis is that after a brief glory period for stretch pass driven hockey, more and more NHL coaches are returning to the safer trap:

The eyeball test tells me the game is now backsliding too much. Five players idling in the neutral zone in a 1-3-1 configuration has become more prevalent than the stretch pass. I even saw up-tempo aficionado Peter Laviolette of the Flyers pull all five of his guys into the neutral zone for long stretches recently. And why not? It conserves energy because less skating is involved. Defensive players are getting away with more while moving their feet less.

Trapping in and of itself isn’t an issue. The issue is how and when it’s used. If Laviolette has the Flyers coming out trapping, that could be an issue in terms of game quality. But I’m guessing the game Eliot saw was a close one. Laviolette probably moved to a trap in the third period, to keep his opponent out of the game.

Is it exciting hockey? Not really. Is it smart coaching? Of course. Why play a high-risk system when you’re ahead? Why should an NHL coach, who’s paid to win, use a system that’s not appropriate for what he’s trying to accomplish on the ice?

Would Eliot criticize NFL coaches for not blitzing or Hail Marying on every down? The blitz and the Hail Mary are two of football’s most exciting plays. By Eliot’s logic, it’s good for the sport if coaches use them as often as possible. And by that same logic, the punt and field goal, two boring NFL plays, should be used much less frequently.

But of course, without those boring plays, most NFL teams couldn’t win. Coaches need those tools.

It’s the same thing with the trap. It’s a tool coaches need to win. The season is too long to sustain 82 full games of full-on, end-to-end, nonstop rush hockey.

While coaching the Islanders, coach Scott Gordon refused to slow things down for a team that really didn’t have the talent, depth, or experience for post-lockout, stretch pass hockey. Gordon lost his job.

Coach John Tortorella, now in New York, has always preached a ‘safe is death’ offensive philosophy. But he’s managed to get a lot of wins out of a weak, injury-ridden Rangers team by selectively using the trap when the Rangers are ahead late in games.

Eliot’s right that more NHL coaches are returning to the trap. But more NHL coaches are using the trap as a tool and not as something they execute for 60 minutes. Or 65 minutes, if the trap is executed successfully by both sides.

Either way, it’s hard to fault a coach for using every option at his disposal to make sure his team wins.