There are passionate arguments on both sides of The Great Tampa Trap Debate of 2011 but I’m going to explain why I think the people defending Tampa here are wrong.  It comes down to 1) a distinction you have to draw between fighting to win at all costs and fighting to win and to entertain, and 2) setting a precedent has consequences beyond those in the short term.

A friend of mine once proudly told me he had firmly kicked a guy who wanted to fight him in the nuts.  I cautiously implied that this was maybe not the greatest way to fight, to which he replied, “Hey, if some big guy wants to give me trouble for no reason, he’s gonna get booted in the nuts”.  I find that hard to argue with.  Now, Tampa didn’t kick Philly in the nuts literally or metaphorically, but the point I want to make is that Tampa is not getting beat up by Philly: they are getting paid to fight Philly and it is implied that they should do so in ways that do not threaten the popularity of the league that pays them.  Their villages are not being burned down, their soldiers are not dying, their culture is not being destroyed: they are playing a hockey game where winning and entertaining are both important, and the idea of winning at all costs has no place.

Defending Tampa’s trap by deferring to the success of the strategy is missing the point.  It is obviously an effective strategy, and when you are feeling outgunned by a talented team it is arguably your best strategic bet.  Nashville made the second round trapping last year, everyone traps up a goal late in the third, and the Devils won an infamous Cup doing it.   However, this isn’t about strategy.  The point is, as Marc Crawford and Bob Mackenzie noted on TSN, a trap of this extent is bad for hockey. 

Some have questioned why Tampa should care about what is good or bad for hockey when they could be caring about winning. That argument ignores the reality that people need to enjoy watching the NHL and it should ideally be a product players, coaches, GMs, and fans are proud of.  Others have argued that this isn’t bad for hockey since other teams won’t do it just because Tampa did. That argument mistakenly treats the conscious decisions of other teams as though they are a natural law.

Rare footage of people actually moving last night

It’s like arguing that there is nothing wrong with insurance fraud because most other people will still be honest with their insurance companies even if you aren’t.  However, in Boucher’s defence, we should keep in mind that Tampa doesn’t do this very often: they’re 5th in the league in goals for and 23rdin goals against.  This was something Boucher did because his D-corps was thin, he was playing a healthy, hot Flyers squad and he wanted to win.  So I have to admit that I do think the reaction to this has been overblown, only in the sense that people are talking about Boucher like he’s trying to win 3-2 every night.  He’s not.

You’re probably with me or against me by now but let me take another stab at winning you over:

1) A 12-year-old, Tim, is being targeted for no reason by a 15-year-old bully, Bob.  Bob finds Tim after school and tries to beat him up but Tim keep his hands up, moves quickly and often, and makes it clear that Bob isn’t gonna catch him.  One time, Bob swings, slips on some gravel, and Tim slams him in the chin.  Bob’s friends accuse Tim of violating conventions on fighting. 

Now, in this case, I don’t care: Tim didn’t want to fight, he was going to be physically harmed against his will, and he had no choice but to make the best of a dangerous situation.  Screw convention.  

2) A 21-year-old, Eric, decides along with his friends that he wants to make a fighting league to make money.  The league does well, sells tickets, and allows Eric to make a few hundred bucks on the weekends.  He loses a few in a row but soon realizes that the best way to beat a superior opponent is to refuse to punch unless he is punched himself.  That way he will rarely be countered and he can stay protected all the time.  He wins some fights, makes even more money, and feels pretty good. 

However, one day a group of his friends who also fight in the league complain that the fighters don’t like his system.  Eric says “who cares, it works doesn’t it?  They can do it too”.  His friends tell him that if every fighter did that system, no punches would be thrown and the fights would be very boring.  Eric says “hey, the rules say I can fight how I want, and that’s what I’m going to do. My fans want to see me win”.  The other fighters argue that they will all make less money if they all adopt the system, but that they have no choice but to adopt it if Eric does since they will always lose to him and other fighters using this style.  If the fights remain exciting, it will be because the other fighters sacrifice their own probability of winning for the sake of the welfare of the fighting league. 

In this case, I would agree with the fighters: Eric’s system may be strategically sound, but it is bad for the sport if we assume that popularity and money are good and a lack of these things is bad.  

This is why Crawford defended the idea of the trap while condemning Boucher’s ‘forecheck trap’ last night (he’s a coach who got fired for not winning enough!) There are teams that trap a lot in the NHL but we can still have entertaining hockey games.  However, if every team starts playing Boucher’s neutral zone no-forecheck 1-3-1 trap… well, the only thing entertaining to watch will be GMs pointing fingers at each other. 

So I commend the Flyers for refusing to enter the trap because they made a point: if teams play a zero-forecheck trap in the first period of a 0-0, non-divisional game in November, then the other teams will start playing equally boring hockey because they want to win too.  Maybe the Flyers were just doing it because they didn’t want to turn the puck over, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a calculated decision to embarrass the Lightning in front of the league while making a point about what other teams ought to do when faced with five opponents that don’t want to cross the blue line.  I’ll defer to Bourne on what it would feel like to have a bench full of players standing and screaming at you on the ice for playing the world’s most boring system of hockey, but I would guess it’s not pleasant.  

It’s kind of the Sean Avery rule all over again: yes, it’s legal and could help you win, but no, it is not good for hockey.  It sets a dangerous precedent, it pressures other teams into doing it for fear of losing, and a few months from now we might be embarrassed of what hockey has become. 

On a similar note, I also want to point out what a travesty it was to see that kind of hockey in a game where Giroux, Briere, Voracek, Jagr, JVR, Lecavalier, St. Louis, and Stamkos are all on the ice.  Neither team hit double-digit shots in a single period despite 24 minutes of power play time.   

Comments (26)

  1. thanks for this. particularly the last paragraph. this is probably the first and only time a lot of people will ever agree with something said by chris pronger.

  2. I think you missed the point, the team that was refusing to play here was Philly. They looked up, saw the defense and then THEY refused to play hockey. “If you’re not going to let us get a bunch of shots on goal, we’re just not going to play!”

    Why is Tampa expected to send in a guy after a puck when a defenseman has clear control of it and partner that is in position. Watching them go D to D while a forechecker plays “monkey in the middle” isn’t exciting or productive hockey, either.

  3. Preposterous. Stop NFL’s teams from taking a knee then to run out the clock, its not entertaining. No more clinching in boxing or mma.

    The point of sports is not to entertain, it is to win. Players play to win, coaches coach to win and people buy teams to make money. Winning is entertaining. You’re telling me Tampa vs Washington and Tampa vs Boston wasn’t entertaining in the playoffs last year? Tampa’s attendance is better than it was two years ago because they win, despite using the 1-3-1 on occasion. And I’m sure they are better draw at visiting arena’s because of the fact that they are a competitive team.

    Philly’s attitude was pathetic, either play to our strengths or we’re not playing.

  4. The problem with this, though, is that the Bolts were on DEFENSE. In any sport, when you’re on defense, there’s no expectation that you attack. It oftentimes gives you a better shot at winning, or at forcing a mistake, but at the end of the day, you’re defending your goal, endzone, basket, whatever you want to call it. Tampa is simply under no obligation to attack the Flyers in any way, shape or form when the Flyers have the puck.

    Conversely, the Flyers are on OFFENSE. It doesn’t matter the sport. When you’re on offense, the point is to attack. In fact, there is a significant detriment to your team when you don’t attack (i.e. you don’t put points on the board). The Lightning weren’t doing anything wrong.

    Is their style the most exciting style to watch? No. But, at the end of the day, their purpose when the other team has the puck isn’t be be exciting. It’s to defend, and they obviously did just that. Boring or not, there were extended periods of time where the Flyers had the puck, but were not an offensive threat because of the Lightning’s system. I don’t think Boucher gives a good goddamn whether or not it was exciting, because it worked.

    By Philly doing what they did, all it does is cement in Boucher’s mind (and in the minds of Tampa’s players) that this style of hockey, no matter how boring works.

    It isn’t the Lightning that should be ashamed today. It’s the Flyers for essentially becoming that kid who gets pissed that everyone else isn’t doing what he wants to do and says, “Fine, I’m taking my ball and going home!”

    • Your explanation isn’t 100% correct because hockey is a sport where all players are playing varying percentages of defense and offense at the same time. Its not always clear cut. Flyers had puck possession, but they were not on offense. By owning the puck, they own where they want to move it. The only way they don’t is if Tampa attacks them and makes them turn it over. Tampa refused to do this so Philly had no pressure to do anything with the puck. By not doing anything, they were explicitly saying…”hey look what happens if the other team doesn’t want to play, Tampa just stands still.”

      How then can you blame one team more than the other? Both are at fault for not doing anything, but neither can be punished because its not in the rules beyond a horribly vague “Delay of game” call. You want to place blame strictly on the Flyers, but that will only encourage further trapping, and run the risk of legislating out legitamite stalling to kill penalties or preserve a lead in the final minute (actions that are normally applauded as good plays).

    • tampa, it could be argued, and i think more accurately, was not ‘on defense’. the puck was in the flyers zone, that is tampa bay’s offensive zone. They were not ‘defending their goal’ as there was not any threat to their goal with the puck in the flyers zone. it is obvious that when the puck is in your own defensive end that you are the team on defense at that point and your job is to not make a play that will result in a turnover ending up in your own net. by your argument, every time that the flyers had the puck in their own end, they were on offense and this is obviously false. they call it the philadelphia defensive zone for a reason and tampa bay’s offensive zone for a reason. the flyers were playing appropriately cautious in their own end and waiting for the proper time to break the puck out without entering a ‘trap’ turning the puck over and causing an dangerous situation for themselves in their own end of the ice. you have it exactly backwards.

  5. Like most fans I’m guessing, I’ve been watching the 1-3-1 now for a year and though it’s easy to see the pattern, what I have totally missed is the lack of aggression in the system.

    Chris Pronger and (I’m guessing) Peter Laviolet did a service to everyone last night by graphically showing this aspect. It is probably very apparent to the players on the ice, but doesn’t translate to the TV.

    After spending years speeding up the game, the last thing the NHL should want is something like this to slow it back down. Clogging up the neutral zone with 3 players is nothing new, and at times all teams need to play defensively. The ‘new thing’ here is not the pattern. It’s the idea of clogging it with 4 players to the exclusion of any forechecking.

    I think Pronger and Laviolet also demonstrated the way “out” of this situation though.

    The refs got it half right. The whistle should be blown. What they got wrong is where the faceoff should be. Put it down in the Tampa zone. Here’s what the new rule would say:

    “While playing 5 on 5, if in the judgement of the referee, a team is seen to not be actively persuing the puck and forechecking while the puck is in the offensive zone, and is instead occupying a defensive-only posture primarily in the neutral and defensive zones, the whistle shall be blown, and a faceoff conducted in the defensive zone.”

    The idea of the rule is to force the forecheck, which opens up the neutral zone a bit. Two points… it’s a judgement call by the refs. But it’s a judgement call that the other team (the Flyers in this case) can make very, very easy by in essence calling the other team out.

    Just like Pronger did last night.

  6. TB is one of the fastest teams in the league. They are one of the highest scoring teams in the league. If you think they aren’t aggressive, you haven’t watched very many of their games. They are extremely aggressive. They haven’t slowed down the game; they have frequently sped it up.

    Judging this system based on 3 minutes of reaction by another team–who, by the way, decided on this strategy entirely on their own–and say that Tampa’s the one who caused this to happen is illogical and ill-informed. Saying that Philly “broke” the system is untrue, and anyone who has watched the Lightning for more than 3 minutes ought to know. The 1-3-1 has always been used selectively because it’s designed to be used selectively. The Caps tried this last season and were swept doing it. The Sabres tried it this season and have lost twice. The smart money is on Boucher’s boys waiting out the waiting here.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it here. If you want to beat the Lightning in the 1-3-1, the best choice is movement, not inertia. Ask Florida about that.

    As far as the idea that the players don’t like it? Try again. Guy Boucher is one of the most highly respected coaches in the league, based on polls of NHL players.

    • They are clearly *capable* of being fast and aggressive. The point is that sitting back and not forechecking is bad for the game and bad for the show. In exactly the same way that the trap was bad for the game and the show. One of the problems is that it allows weaker teams (not TB…) to “survive” by creating a slow, bad game. You don’t want this to be a trend in the league.
      The only thing the rule I suggest above would do is force some assertiveness. And if you don’t want to be assertive, fine. The puck ends up in your end anyways.

      • 3 minutes of reaction by one team does not doom the league to 600 guys standing around on the ice for 82 games a year. Especially since, in the end, it didn’t work.

        And I’d gently suggest that you watch the system in action for more than one game (especially this game) before saying that the Boucher’s players aren’t aggressive or assertive.

      • “Sitting back and not forechecking” is only negative when the other team refuses to attempt to move up the ice…as the flyers did last night. It’s not Tampa’s fault that the Flyers were unable to break down Tampa’s system. Look at the number of goals scored on Tampa and the number of goals scored by Tampa this season (and last). This is not a typical “boring trap team” vis a vis the NJ Devils of ten years ago. The Flyers looked like huge babies last night.

        • By that logic, keeping the puck in your own defensive zone is only negative when the other team refuses to come after it. Using that kind of argument, I could argue that the Flyers were sizing up weaknesses in TB’s defense, looking for a hole. Just like a defenseman does when he sits with the puck behind his own net until something presents itself.

          I see a few goofy ways the Flyers could have dealt with this situation:

          1) Here’s a fun one that I can’t take credit for: An intentional giveaway to the TB forward at the blue line… immediately followed by a well-timed (legal) bodycheck by a big angry winger. You’d basically tell Simmonds or Hartnell or Rinaldo to go east-west across the ice at St. Louis, and have Pronger “pass” the puck to St. Louis right before the other Flyer gets there with a full head of steam and clobbers St. Louis. Edgy, yes. Borderline, sure. But technically legal (assuming not a head shot, not charging, etc.). And fun to watch!

          2) Another timing play; this is like a long stretch dump and chase, or even a variation on a punt in football… except, unlike a punt, the “ball” is live!: Flyers forwards skate up to TB’s blue line at full speed while Pronger calmly picks the puck up on the blade of his stick and roofs it into TB’s zone. Philly forwards all chase it down (remember, they timed it so they have a full head of steam and thus a jump start on TB’s defensemen).

          Now, this is pretty dangerous for the same reasons that the current icing rules are (i.e., high-speed, head-first races into the end boards), but hey, it’s legal… And “it’s legal” is the same legit argument TB makes to justify the 1-3-1.

          3) Pronger takes slap-shot at St. Louis’s face. Sure, he gets an unsportsmanlike penalty under Rule 75.2(ii), but that’s only 2 minutes, and hey, St. Louis’s career might be over. So, good trade, huh? Real old-time hockey, so to speak.

          So, those are just some thoughts. Mostly farcical ones. What I’m trying to point out is that any of them are more entertaining than watching two teams sit there doing nothing. If Philly gets called for a delay of game in this circumstance, then every team will trap. And we’ll be back to 2-1 (SO) games all the time…. which is BORING! I don’t love watching Giroux and Stamkos and Ovechkin and Crosby play when they can’t showcase their prodigious talents.

  7. Great post Neil. Food for thought.

  8. The Flyers didn’t look up and see the 1-3-1 and just stop because they didn’t know how to play against it. Really, if you think that you probably have no insight into the mind of an athlete or hockey player. This was a planned and practiced ploy going into the game, with the expressed intent of exposing Tampa Bay’s system on national TV. The Flyers did not beat or break or fail to beat or break their system. This was clearly done to embarrass the players and coaches on Tampa Bay. The Flyers made a spectacle of their team at every chance during the first period, they taunted them from the bench, and made a joke out of their system. If this was indeed not how Tampa usually plays, then why was Philadelphia actually prepared and PRACTICING this move before going into the game? They achieved what they wanted here, they embarrassed their opponent on their ice, and drew league wide attention to where this system can lead. I highly doubt any team thinks that doing this is the way to beat the 1-3-1, but it very clearly shows how it can ruin the game. Well played Laviolette and Pronger, your message was recieved loud and clear among fans, players and the league. Now its on the league to prevent this from happening again.

    • Totally agreed! But what if the league tries to prevent it from happening by requiring a delay of game penalty to be called on the team that possesses the puck and refuses to move up ice? That would prevent a recurrence of last night’s situation, but to the detriment of the sport… because everyone would play a 1-3-1. Snooze.

  9. Personally, I find defense just as interesting as offense.
    I don’t want to watch pond hockey. Offense for the sake of entertainment would be bad for hockey! That’d be playing to the least knowledgeable of fans, and to the ones with short attention spans.

    Hockey is basically a civilized form of warfare. I want to see teams doing whatever they can to win within the rules. And I respect any strategy that is successful.

  10. Some good objections have been raised here (and a couple less good ones) but I want to respond to one thing that has been brought up a lot. A lot of you are pointing out that it is Philly we should be blaming for slowing the game down/making it boring/etc. I consider this partly good because it suggests we might be on the same page regarding the appropriate attitude toward teams playing very boring hockey, which I think is at least half the battle. However, the comments I made about the short and long term consequences of a precent were designed to address this. Philly was placed in a position where the opposing team dramatically increased the chances of a Philly turnover by choosing not to forecheck at all. In the analogy, this is akin to a fighter deciding that he is not going to throw any punches unless he is punched first. Philly didn’t refuse to bring the puck up because they didn’t care about playing boring hockey, wanted to win at all costs, and thought the fans could all take a hike. They refused to take the puck up the ice because it was clear that they were boxing a guy who wasn’t going to throw a single punch at them unless they swung first. So they thought “why should we swing if he’s not going to? Screw that. We’re not swinging either”. I don’t think it makes sense to talk about Philly’s decision not to swing without putting it in the context of Tampa making this decision first. We wouldn’t blame the other fighters in Eric’s league for boring fights, would we? We would blame Eric, because he did it first.
    Imagine an NHL where people don’t bother watching any of the games that teams with injured bluelines play because all they do is counterattack. Should anyone outside of Tampa watch any of Tampa’s games against good teams right now? 24 minutes of PP time, two of the most offensively talented teams in the league, shots were 24-15. Now imagine that game if it was Minnesota-Nashville, and imagine if we had a couple of those every night. So you have to wonder, why don’t more teams play a trap with NO forechecker all game against good teams? The answer, I think, is that some do, and the rest have coaches like Marc Crawford who understand that they are playing a spectator sport, not fighting a war: they are involved in the selling of a product, not fighting a war where victory should be achieved at all costs.

  11. If you want to de-emphasize winning (and thus make games “more entertaining”), you have to lower the value of regular-season wins. You do that by expanding the playoffs.

    I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the wide-open firewagon hockey of the 1980s occurred in an era when 75% of the league made the playoffs. Most teams didn’t have to worry about gaining points in the standings every night, and so were more inclined to provide an entertaining product for the fans. As the league expanded, regular-season games became more important, and the need to win overcame the need to entertain. Enter the trap.

    The NHL is now a league where a two-week slide can make the difference between playoff hockey and April tee times; wins and points are so precious that no team can afford to place “entertainment” over “winning”.

  12. Philadelphia making a point? Ha, the flyers have been stretching credibility for as long as they have been allowed in the league. One example was a goalie wearing what almost looked like lacrosse shoulder pads, over sized and not regulation, (flyers strength), with their broad street bully rep and win at all cost attitude from the owner down, sheesh, no wonder one really likes the flyers.

  13. Ask any coach in the NHL about the concept of “the idea of winning at all costs has no place” (in the game). They may well disagree w/ you, seeing as how their JOB depends on winning. It is the coach’s job to give his team the best chance of winning the game, whether you like it or not. Would you rather see your team WIN 2 – 1, or LOSE 6 – 5? I know which I would choose.

    While I agree w/ the spirit of the article, in practice there is no easy fix to the “problem” of the trap. I think the league has done about as much as it can do in the form of rules changes. You really should not force a team to fore check. Would THAT be “good for the game”? The honus is on the team w/ the puck to advance it, not on the team w/out the puck to play the type of defense their opponents want them to play.

    If Albert Pujols or Cecil Feilder refused to step into the batter’s box because he did not like the defense played against him (the shift), who would be screaming at the other team instead of the batter. Nobody!

    I do not think that you will see a lot of what you saw in the Tampa/Philly game. I saw it more as a protest by the Flyer’s coach than a refusal to play.

    Also, the referee did an excellent job of blowing the whistle as if the puck has been frozen, which it effectively had. Neither do I wish to see yet another judgement call dumped into the ref’s lap.

    • the referee did not do the right thing, that is why the league office actually called down to the referee during a play stoppage in the first period and instructed the referee to NOT blow the whistle again. After that call from the league, the referee did not blow that play down again for the remainder of the game. the puck was in the tampa bay OFFENSIVE ZONE they were not on defense. there was not any threat to their goal. tampa bay is still the team on offense when the puck is in their OFFENSIVE ZONE. you know they call it the offensive zone, neutral zone, and defensive zone for a reason. get a clue, the team with the puck is not always on offense, that is simply silly. by that argument every time a team has the puck at all in their defensive zone, they would somehow be deemed to be on offense. that is simply ludicrous.

      • Dude, your argument is completely false. Puck possession is the determining factor, not the place where the puck is. If you possess the puck you are on offense. If Tom Brady has the ball on his own 2 yard line or his opponents 20, he is on offense. If Lebrun takes an inbound pass in his own zone, he is on offense.
        There is no rule in the book on how defense must be played. There is a rule that if a team refuses to move the puck when there is no pressure (i.e. a goalie tying it up, a player freezing it along the boards), then a delay of game minor shall be called.

  14. I can’t believe so many people are defending Tampa and the 1-3-1. Defensive games can be interesting, and the a 1-0 game can be more entertaining than a 5-4 game. Of course, a lot of that comes down to scoring chances, which the 1-3-1 all but eliminates by keeping any team from attacking with speed (other than a Hail-Mary set play that ends up being icing if it doesn’t work out).

    Of course Philly was making a point last night, but I wish the “win-at-all-costs” people would take a second to realize that their strategy was also effective when the refs didn’t blow the play dead. If you look at the one clip, you can see that they were essentially forcing Tampa into a forecheck, thereby disrupting the trapping system. They actually managed to get the puck deep into Tampa’s zone, though I don’t think that any shots or real chances came from it. If you really support winning at all costs, then you should applaud Philly’s ingenuity of basically using boredom and Tampa’s fans against them. Oh wait, that makes for really boring, unwatchable hockey? Then stop defending the 1-3-1! Or, think of it as hockey’s version of Mutually Assured Destruction. If Tampa launches the 1-3-1, then Philly or any other team needs to respond with the an Armageddon of boring, particularly if they are on the road and can use Tampa’s fans against them.

    • Yes, Philly’s stall move was so uninteresting that the whole hockey world has been talking about it.

      The 1-3-1 is only a couple years old. That system is broken by skilled teams and will become broken more often by less skilled teams as people figure out what works.

      I’d see your point if the games often came to a stop like that, but this is an NHL first… clearly not a pattern.

      • I may have come on a little strong above (and the tongue-in-cheek didn’t quite come across), but I actually agree with you. Philly’s move was really interesting, and it’s great that people are talking about systems instead of speculating about Ovi’s relationship with Beaudreau or other inane topics. And all of the polemic aside, I think that it is a perfectly legitimate way to break that kind of trap.

        People have been talking about the onus being on Philly to move the puck forward, but hanging back and passing between the defensemen until the trap breaks or is forced into action is actually an active decision about how to attack the system. I loved it. In fact, it reminded me of how certain successful, possession-oriented soccer teams (eg Spain) win, because they are patient enough to force the other team’s coverage to break down.

        I would rather see more forward movement and action. But, if teams are going to employ the 1-3-1, then I think this is a great, and to repeat, legitimate way to deal with it. Of course, if you are down a goal, then it doesn’t really work. But at 0-0 in the first? Go for it!

        If the NHL decides that it does not want to have the puck just moving laterally between defensemen, then the NHL needs to decide how to curb the 1-3-1 and actually address the root problem.

        • Good points.
          I don’t think the NHL will need to do anything, though. It’ll sort itself out by teams learning to beat it and it having limited success in the playoffs, imo.

          If I was coaching a tough team like Philly, I’d break the system by skating guys towards one of the guys standing still and purposely giving away the puck to them just in time for them to get crushed.
          Or sending all three forwards to one side and feed the trailing man who can flip it in when he gets to the red line while the two in front have speed built up to get to the puck first.
          I think it’s easily beaten, teams just don’t see it often enough and aren’t prepared. That will change.

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