UPDATED: Details on rule changes.
“Ugh, all they do is trap.”
“I wish the Wild would go back to playing the trap.”
“Trapping kills the game.”
“Trapping is the best defense ever.”
Ask four hockey fans for their opinions on the “trap system” and you’ll likely get four very different answers. It seems to be a hot topic over on the Wild’s Facebook page since they slumped in mid-December through January, and I’ve found myself repeatedly explaining the system. I’m going to lay my views on the trap out here along with an explanation and examples, and then I can just point to this post in the future.
Let’s define the trap system first. Trap is short for “neutral zone trap”, and it is a defensive system within ice hockey designed to disrupt and slow offensive plays. The point of the trap is to move puck handlers to the outside of the rink as they enter the neutral zone, forcing them to dump the puck deep and give chase. It’s often criticized as decreasing scoring, and led to rule changes by the NHL during the 2004-2005 lockout designed to level the playing field; more on that later when we talk about how to beat the system.
That’s the “what” of the trap. Seriously, that’s all it is. Let’s move on to the “why”.
Trap systems are simple yet effective methods for a team to compete against offensively stronger clubs. It reduces the risk of odd man rushes and fast attacks through the neutral zone. Nothing more, nothing less.
The “how” is where things get interesting. There are many variations on the trap, usually denoted numerically. The classic trap is a “1-3-1″. One defender is positioned at the opponent’s blue line, three are positioned across the red line, and one is positioned at the defensive blue line. The classic trap can be made more aggressive by putting the forward player on the forecheck and having him chase down the puck carrier through the center of the ice. The point of the forecheck is twofold; it should push the puck carrier to the sides of the rink to be dealt with by the neutral zone defenders and should also put pressure on him to rush a pass, thereby possibly causing a turnover.
The trap system can be (and has been) modified in just about any way to suit a team’s particular style. A “1-2-2″ variation is common among teams with an aggressive forecheck as it allows for lots of movement and adjustment. The 2-2 setup can leave large swatches of open ice and provide a fast offense with gaps to maneuver through the zone if the opponent has good skaters. The upside is that it can be very effective at stopping long passes and thereby preventing odd man rushes and breakaways. It’s all about knowing your opponent’s style of play.
Let’s talk about the Wild. Minnesota is already known as a trapping club courtesy of former coach Jacques Lemaire. Love him or hate him, his defensive-focused system did garner success throughout his career. As hockey has moved toward a fast, more skillful game in recent years (finesse over brawn, if you will), a new style of trap has become effective, and that style forms the basis of Mike Yeo’s system. In order to understand the Wild’s current play, we need to look east to Pittsburgh.
Mike Yeo has a long history with the Penguins organization and it shows in his style. The Penguins have offensive firepower, no doubt about it, yet they employ the trap (no matter how hard their fans deny it)…albeit a very aggressive version of the trap. The Penguins reverse the trap and play 2-2-1 in many instances, putting 2 forecheckers into the opponent’s zone. This system depends on the two forecheckers having enough speed and pressure to force turnovers, relying on the 2-1 in the neutral zone as a backup plan. If the Penguins are feeling particularly feisty, they’ve even set up in a 2-3. To pull off that arrangement, you need speed and lots of it.
There simply isn’t the team-wide skating talent on the Wild (sorry, but it’s true) to successfully employ the Penguins’ system in an identical fashion, but Yeo has cleverly modified it. The Wild play (or at least are told to play) a system with a single forechecker, but a very aggressive one. It’s a 1-2-2 system with the “1” out for blood. It should be somewhat familiar to Wild veterans as Richards coached a passive 1-2-2 system. Yeo’s is much faster and relies on close pursuit of the puck by the forechecker.
The Wild tend to get into trouble when the forechecker doesn’t have the speed or agility to keep up with the opponent. One thing that Yeo and Lemaire have stylistically in common is their constant rearranging of lines. While this can keep the Wild’s opponents off-guard and prevent them from matching players, it can also lead to the Wild having a less-than-stellar defensive skater on the forecheck…case in point, Devin Setoguchi. Seto is a solid offensive skater, but he is not defensive-minded enough to pursue effectively with speed.
This leads to the closing of this little essay, which is how to defeat the trap. It’s actually not that hard, IF you have the passing and skating chops to pull it off. Stretch passes are the fastest way through the trap. If you have skaters who can pass with laser accuracy and keep fast pucks on their tape, the trap will work against the defense and in your favor (especially facing a 1-3-1). If your opponent plays a 1-2-2 and you have skilled skaters, maneuver your way through the middle of the zone and you’re golden. With two lines of two defensive players, there should be a gap if you can get to it.
In 2004-2005, the league changed the rules out of fear that the trap system was causing a decrease in interest from fans. The rule changes were simple but effective. Two-line passes were allowed once again (from behind the defensive blue line to a player across the red center line) and officials were taught to penalize players for any obstructive penalty, such as hooking, tripping, or holding. This forced traps to rely on body positioning and skating skill and increased the chance of an offense breaking through the trap.
Hopefully this clears up some of the misconceptions that are constantly floating around the interwebs concerning the trap system. The next time you watch a game, pay close attention to the neutral zone and try to determine what variation of the trap is being played. Most teams in the league employ it to some degree.