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Inside the Trap

October 10, 2011 General No Comments

Inside the trap
By Bob Cunngingham
Nov 5, 2001, 19:24

 

Lemaire’s goal: Frustrate them. ©BBS

Some have called it the best coaching job in two decades. Others simply say that good strategy plus execution equals success. Regardless of how or why, the New Jersey Devils were quite a story after capturing the first Stanley Cup in franchise history last June.

Actually, though, it’s the how and why that most fascinate those close to the game. The biggest single strategic key to the resounding Devils triumph over the favored Detroit Red Wings in the Cup finals, as well as their victories in the Eastern Conference playoffs over Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, was their ability to neutralize the big offensive guns for the opposing teams before they could become threats inside the blueline and near the crease.

We’re talking some big names here—Cam Neely, Jaromir Jagr, Luc Robitaille, Eric Lindros, Sergei Federov—all ranked among the game’s premier scorers.

And all rendered totally frustrated by Devils coach Jacques Le-maire’s defensive tactics, which have become widely known as a form of a neutral-zone trap.

“But don’t call it a ‘trap’ when you talk to (Lemaire) about it,” warned a member of New Jersey’s public relations department.

Although utilizing the word ‘trap’ when discussing Lemaire’s philosophy isn’t truly accurate, those involved really don’t mind the characterization, simply for lack of a better term.

“I call it a trap when I talk about it, because that’s how everyone else seems to be referring to it,” says Los Angeles Kings head coach Larry Robinson, the one-time great defenseman who worked as an assistant coach under Lemaire in New Jersey for the past three seasons. “No matter what you call it, we did real well with it last year.”

 

It’s nothing new

Contrary to popular belief, says Robinson, this so-called neutral-zone trap is not new to the NHL. On the contrary, Robinson coins it as “good ol’ fashioned hockey. It’s been in effect since the ‘70s.”

The basic philosophy behind this form of early defense is to concentrate on an area rather than a specific player, at least initially. The more commonly acknowledged defense in the neutral zone is one in which the puck-handler is converged upon, forcing a pass that may be misdirected. Other players are accounted for, but the man with the puck is the primary concern.

But with the system the Devils utilize under Lemaire, the prime directive says to force the attack, as a whole, into a part of the ice that is most easily defended. Take away passing lanes and knock the wings off their paths toward the lane. The puck-handler may end up with more open ice in front of him, but it’s frozen real estate that he likely doesn’t desire to take.

“It’s an approach that takes away the options of the player with the puck,” explains Lemaire. “With nowhere to go and no one to pass to, it can be frustrating. We try to utilize these circumstances to force turnovers.”

The Devils also mastered the technique of effectively neutralizing players who didn’t have possession of the puck. It was a first priority, rather than a luxury.

“Any player that is rushed is not as effective as a player with free ice.” Lemaire said during the Pittsburgh series. “Players get frustrated. And any team is hurt if it gets frustrated. It becomes more difficult to keep your poise.”

In their championship run last year, the Devils utilized different forms of this same basic approach. At times, they’d break off from their territories and converge on the puck hoping for a quick turnover and a breakaway. Also, the Devils would often install specific players as shadows for an opposing team’s top scoring threat, making it a point to prevent that player from having any room to operate from the neutral zone on in.

“Our main goal was to get possession of the puck. It’s a way of disrupting the opposing offense, which is the best way to get turnovers,” Robinson says.

Claude Lemieux was most often the designated shadow, although they also possessed a designated Driver—first name Bruce. Although he has since been traded to the New York Rangers, Driver literally drove opposing attackers crazy with non-stop brushing, elbows, and consistent checking away from the puck.

 

Get ‘em up, ride ‘em up

Robinson likens the philosophy to cowboys successfully ushering livestock on the open range.

“It’s like herding a bunch of cattle into an open gate,” Robinson explains. “You do what you need to do to get people in an area you’re covering. It effectively shrinks the ice. You’re cutting off areas of the rink by forcing players over. It’s a lot easier to defend half the rink between the blue lines than it is a full rink that’s 90 x 200 (feet).

“Once you’ve got it cut off, you can attack the guy with the puck. Force him in with the rest. Make him go where he doesn’t want to.”

According to Robinson, Randy McKay, Mike Peluso and Bobby Holik were also key defenders for the Devils last season. Their common trait? All are veterans, all are disciplined, all know when to maintain their checks and when to break off, and all firmly believe in the system.

But like most concepts, it’s crucial that the ability to rotate people through without a fall-off in effectiveness be maintained.

“Truthfully, everybody on that team had a part in making it work,” Robinson says. “The main reason it was successful is because everyone bought into the system.”

Said forward Stephane Richer during the playoffs, “when I’m on the bench, I look down at (Lemaire and Robinson) and think ‘am I lucky or what?’”

What made the system work so well for the Devils was Lemaire’s mastery at shuffling line combinations to get desirable facets of the game working as one. If he felt the Devils needed to be quick to be effective in the neutral zone, he’d combine better skaters. If the situation called for physical over finesse, he would go for more strength.

Most often, however, Lemaire opted for familiar combinations. Reuniting players who had previously skated together. For instance, matching Richer and Lemieux, who had skated on the same line as teammates with Montreal in the mid ‘80s was a key in both the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia series. Lemaire knew this because he coached the Canadiens for two seasons when the linemates were there. In ‘86, both were instrumental in the Montreal’s Stanley Cup triumph over the Calgary Flames.

 

Familiarity breeds success

Familiarity appears to be a beneficial ingredient, as it is in most aspects of the game.

“You have to have players that work best together, because they must work together to make the system work,” Lemaire says. “If one guy isn’t doing his job, it won’t work.”

Lemaire drew praise—and Coach of the Year honors—for his juggling prowess. But another interesting aspect is that the trapping style doesn’t require all-star caliber players at every interval.

The Devils do have all-stars—Scott Stevens comes to mind—but it is not a team loaded with individual standouts.

Lemaire acknowledged the challenge in keeping the right combinations on the ice, stating, “the ability to keep the Devils prepared, ready to sacrifice for a common goal, and on an even emotional plain was of primary importance.

“You have to know your personnel,” he says.

Adds Robinson: “It’s a lot different than the type of defense (St. Louis head coach) Mike Keenan likes to play, where you’re pressuring the puck all over the place. To do that consistently and effectively for extended periods, you’ve got to have the personnel.”

OK, so if this strategy is less demanding from a player-personnel standpoint, why isn’t it more prevalent?

“The players have to buy into the system, but like anything else, it can break down,” notes the Kings coach. “If it does, your goaltender is facing a lot of situations in which he’s at a disadvantage.”

Robinson noted that Devils netminder Martin Brodeur was as important to the Devils shutting down opposing offenses as were the guys actually executing the traffic jams between the bluelines.

“Nothing works all the time, and Brodeur was excellent. You have to have outstanding goaltender play, too, because teams are still going to get off a certain amount of shots.”

Robinson explains that there are variations to the trapping system the Devils used, and the one he will most likely implement into the LA arsenal. For instance, ex-Florida Panthers coach Roger Neilson utilized a similar approach that was perhaps less aggressive.

“Theirs was a little more passive,” Robinson says of the Florida style under Neilson. “They wouldn’t forecheck as much. They tended to do more sitting back and waiting, (whereas) we would just try to get possession of the puck. That was the whole idea.”

One pressing question remains unanswered with all of this. How did the label “trap” get pinned on this philosophy, anyway? In reality, it’s not a trap at all. In basketball, a trapping defense is one that emphasizes constantly double-teaming and even triple-teaming the man with the ball, attempting to force him into a turnover. That explanation equates more to Keenan’s approach than to Lemaire’s.

No wonder Lemaire doesn’t acknowledge the name.

In fact, the accurate part of neutral-zone trap is ‘zone.’ And while a zone defense is illegal in the NBA, it’s a championship strategy in the NHL.

This first appeared in the 11/1995 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2001 Hockey Player® and Hockey Player Magazine®

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