November 10, 2011
No matter what style of trap a hockey team plays — the Guy Boucher 1-3-1, the Detroit Red Wings' left-wing lock, Jacques Lemaire placing a pillow over the mouth and nose of entertainment — the systems' success depends on the failure of others.
They skated around in their own zone, ragging the puck and refusing to advance. The Lightning remained in their system, refusing to attack on the forecheck. It was the single most compelling and embarrassing thing the NHL has put on television that didn't involve the Guardian Project.
Referee Rob Martell blew the whistle twice for defensive zone draws. It's all he could do. There's nothing in the rulebook that prevents the Flyers from doing what they did last night. Flyers Coach Peter Laviolette was even hazy about why the Flyers were whistled: "The first one, they said the puck needed to be moving. We were moving on the second one, and it was blown again. Not sure why the first one needs to be moving."
(Somewhere up there, Roger Nielson was smiling down on Tampa Bay, before going back to breaking down tape for his saintly beer league team ...)
The Flyers lost the game, 2-1 in overtime, but they won the chess match. "They eventually had to change their system, and that is something that we wanted them to do," said Scott Hartnell(notes) to the Philadelphia Daily News.
Check and mate.
The interesting dynamic in postgame debates about this tactic were that fans and media, by and large, supported the Flyers. The comments were anti-trap, and specifically anti-Boucher 1-3-1. Where these people were when the Lightning were rolling to the Eastern Conference Final last season, we're not sure; maybe too busy pointing and laughing at the Capitals getting swept to realize why they had been swept.
There were two people who could have stopped that abhorrent spectacle last night, and they weren't on the Flyers. The first guy was the Tampa Bay player skating near the Flyers' blue line, refusing to force the play. That's because the second guy, Guy Boucher, isn't allowing him to slip the leash.
There is, however, a third party that could step up and ensure this doesn't become a popular tactic to use against trapping teams: The NHL.
And while we don't favor reactionary rule changes, we do acknowledge the necessity to occasionally close loopholes. So is it time for an NHL "shot clock" to prevent what the Flyers did last night?
Please understand that this isn't a call for a traditional shot clock like in basketball.
No one would ever think to require a team to fire the puck within a certain amount of time. Even if that would really, really help certain fancy-pants power plays in the League.
Rather, we're wondering if there needs to be a time limit, and a legal mechanism, for the officials to use that would allow for a delay of game or unsportsmanlike conduct penalty if a team refuses to advance the puck.
As Ben Wright noted on Twitter: It's like the 8-second rule in basketball to advance the ball over mid-court.
Here's what the Flyers did last night:
The Flyers weren't the first team to mock the trap or just rag the puck in their zone. In a protest against the stifling of offensive creativity in the QMJHL last season, Rimouski Océanic head coach Clément Jodoin had his players simply pass the puck back and forth in their own zone against Montreal's trap:
Nothing came of this. It was a one-time protest.
It's happened in the NHL, too, and against Tampa Bay previously. From Frank Seravelli:
Washington's Bruce Boudreau was the first to use the wait-it-out tactic against the Lightning, a division rival, last season. Laviolette followed suit last Feb. 15, coaxing Tampa Bay into taking chances, as the Flyers were able to capture a 4-3 shootout win and their only points in the four-game season series.
Which is why this might not become a mandatory tactic against the Lightning or another team. But why take the chance?
Which brings us to the "Shot Clock."
When it was implemented in basketball, it was done so mostly because teams were stalling out the minutes at the end of games; passing the ball around, or standing still. The delays and the fouls led to the end of basketball games becoming tedious marathons. Yes, even more than they are today.
The NBA added a shot clock in 1953, and it was credited with "saving the game." The NCAA didn't follow suit until 1986, after coaches of average teams had used the lack of a shot clock to try and hang with more talented opponents. (In this case, it's almost like the basketball version of the trap.)
Again, these changes were out of necessity to maintaining a level of excitement in the product. Last night's first period was a car wreck; the next time we see it, we may not feel the need to ogle so intently.
So what to do? Put a 20-second clock on teams in their own zone, mandating they skate or pass out of the zone in the time period or else face a penalty?
Well, then we might have teams skating over the blue line and then back into the zone, like a wrestler breaking a referee's count by rolling in and out of the ring. You can't be that specific about it.
Which is why the "Shot Clock" — and I can't believe I'm saying this — needs to be up to the discretion of the referee, rather than a ticking countdown on the scoreboard. It needs to be a matter of intent.
Twenty seconds seems like a reasonable amount of time — enough for a line change, and to organize a rush. When we get to that point, the referee can use his discretion as to whether to penalize the team for delay of game or let the scene play out. But give him a tool that allows there to be consequences for inaction.
This isn't an indictment of what the Flyers did, because it's legal (now) and because seeing the tables turned on the trap was a perverse joy.
But if the trap is "killing the game," then responding to it like that is pissing on the corpse.
A defensive chess match is within the spirit of the game, but it's not within the ambitions and objectives of the National Hockey League, which has worked hard to open up offense, create flow, create chances and watched as the popularity of the League has grown since the lockout because of it.
A 20-second maximum for puck-stalling is a "spirit of the NHL" rule. If they can all come together to make sure Sean Avery(notes) can't wave a stick in front of Marty Brodeur's face, they can certainly fast-track something to ensure that VERSUS isn't wasting its air time on something as kinetic as hitting "pause" on your DVR.
Would this rule increase, or reinforce, use of the trap in the NHL? Perhaps, but I think other rules changes (elimination of the two-line pass, increased standards on obstruction) have made it impossible to play the kind of smothering defense the Devils did under Lemaire, for example.
(And before you start popping off with the Devils fan/trap lover thing: I appreciate defensive hockey. I was never exactly a fan of the trap. I'm not alone among Devils fans, as the last 20 years of attendance might indicate.)
It's the lesser of two evils: The Tampa Bay Lightning playing the 1-3-1 and being seventh in the NHL in offense last season vs. an opponent refusing to, you know, play hockey.
Neither is exactly the ideal for hockey entertainment, but the latter makes the NHL unwatchable.
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