The Neutral Zone Trap & the New Jersey Devils

The legendary coach, Jacques Lemaire, got the Devils to play a neutral zone trap in the mid-1990s. Their usage of the tactic was a big reason for their success at the time. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

One of the biggest reasons why the New Jersey Devils rose to prominence in the mid-1990s (1995-1996 excepted) and won the Stanley Cup in 1995 was their use of the neutral zone trap.    It's a defensive system that head coach Jacques Lemaire drilled into the team, who collectively bought into it to great success.  The Devils didn't invent the trap or created it out of nowhere.  Per this Toronto Hockey article that explains it somewhat, the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s used this system as well - and it's origins lie further back in international play. Lemaire was on those incredibly successful teams, so it's not really a surprise that he recalled it and implemented it when coaching New Jersey and elsewhere.   Granted, the Devils weren't loaded with talent as those Montreal teams; but it certainly gave the Devils an edge at the time.

I bring this up because of a comment to a recent post about the 1995 Devils made by user NJGuy:

Now, that being said from somebody who is too young to remember those seasons, I have of course heard many things about the Neutral Zone Trap, and how we so famously used it under Lemaire. I do have a general idea of it and how it works, but is it possible for somebody to post a more definitive definition of this please?

This is a good question to ask.  After all, even today, some decry any kind of defensive hockey as a "trap." Others decry the Devils simply because they've used it before.  Nonetheless, it's important to understand what it is if only so we can properly recognize it.  Fortunately, there are several videos explaining it.  I've included a few along with my thinking as to why the Devils were so good at performing the neutral zone trap when other teams weren't after the jump.

In response to NJGuy's question, user NJDOhio linked to this video explaining the neutral zone trap.  The video is by Jeremy Weiss, who runs Weiss Tech Hockey - a site that focuses on hockey drills and strategy for coaches.  It's a very good video in explaining the ins and outs of how the trap operates (though the defending team is usually hanging back a little more)

 

There are a few parts of the video I want to highlight.  First, the formation. This is referred to as a 1-2-2 set up because there's 1 high forward, 1 forward on each side of that high forward, and 1 defenseman on each side.  Hence, some call it a 1-2-2 set-up.  Second, the main purpose is to stop the opposition from attacking before they even come close to their offensive zone.  The video has the defenders up a bit further than you usually see in games.  Normally, the trapping team attempts to force the puck carrier to make a bad decision or dump it away in the neutral zone.  He gets led into a spot on the ice where he can't do much going forward in the center of the ice; hence, it's called a neutral zone trap.  Third, should the attacking player - puck carrier or otherwise - make a mistake; the defensive team can pounce on it and immediately attack.  Should the trap work, the defending team will be closer to their opposition's end of the rink and if they pick up the turnover, they'll catch them by some manner of surprise.  That's how it can be described as a counter-attacking measure as well as a defensive stance.

The most important aspect that is that it requires all five defending players to know how to defend, skate, and work together in position.  This is what made the Devils' utilization of the neutral zone trap different and arguably more effective than other teams in a little bit after 1995.  The neutral zone trap requires the defending team to be patient and cause the attacking team to go where they want.  If the high forward - likely a center given that he's in the center of the ice - isn't holding his position, then the trap can be busted from the start.   If the wings aren't quick enough to get into position, aware enough of where they need to be, or are just poor defenders; then the puckcarrier may not actually be trapped on the side.  Lastly, if the defensemen aren't adjusting as necessary behind the forwards in support, then can give the attacking team an out in the neutral zone.  Everyone has to be mobile enough to get into position, intelligent enough to know what that position is and to make the right reads on defense, and for those engaging with the attacking player, they need to know how to defend against them. The neutral zone trap truly is a team defensive system.   

Here's a second video about how the neutral zone trap is ideally performed. The defenders aren't as high up and it shows how well it can be a run against a breakout play.  This is by Coach Nielsen, who also explains systems and hockey drills for coaches.  He categorized the neutral zone trap as a forechecking option, incidentally.

Like all systems, it can be beaten.  Speedy attackers could beat defending players along the boards, or to the puck after a dump-in.  An adept passer can find seams even through the traffic in the neutral zone. A skilled puckhandler could beat a defending player one-on-one. The puck handler could just drop the puck back and have the defenseman continue the breakout.  Most likely, based on what I've seen when a defense gets beaten in other situations, a trap gets busted because someone's not where they needed to be. As these videos suggest, the trap is at it's most effective when all five players are set-up and in position.  That's true whether it's a 1-2-2, a 1-3-1 (what Tampa Bay currently runs), or a 2-3 formation.

This brings me to the New Jersey Devils under Jacques Lemaire.  If you look at those 1993-94 and 1995 lineups, you'll see plenty of forwards who weren't known for their offense.  What those guys could do was defend. In a system like the trap, should it force a turnover, even the most defensive forwards got offensive opportunities to score. It could explain why the likes of Tom Chorske, Bobby Carpenter, Corey Millen, and Bobby Holik each earned 20 or more goals, now that I think about it.  In any case, the Devils absolutely frustrated teams because they rolled four lines who could set up in this 1-2-2 formation and force the opposition to make a mistake or give up on the attack early.  It surely disrupted the game's flow. But that's fine for New Jersey Devils fans as it helped them keep games within reach or win games outright.  They're in the "winning games" business not the "freewheeling hockey" business. 

The fact that the Devils could roll four lines and three pairings who could trap is the biggest difference between their usage and other teams.  Everyone bought into it, which made them so difficult to play against as a whole.  You would see a fourth line come out and the opposition would still struggle instead of beating up on them.  I'm not sure why the team collectively jumped into the trapping system to begin with. Maybe it's because they were successful in 1993-94, which did it's job convincing players to get used to playing in a trap.   Maybe it's because Lemaire carried that much respect with his pedigree (read: 8 Stanley Cup rings) as a player and the Devils players figured they should listen to to a guy with that much success. Maybe Lou or owner Dr. John McMullen said, "You will all do this or else."  I don't know what caused it to happen. Either way, when the wins piled up, it surely became an easy sell for those players who didn't do so immediately.  

Since the roster was full of skaters who could defend well enough, weren't glacier-like in speed (well, for the most part at least), and the players collectively followed Lemaire's tactics on the neutral zone trap, the Devils also remained very disciplined when utilizing the trap even after 1995.   One of the big criticisms of the trap is that it led to a lot of clutching and grabbing by defending players.  There can be contact made in a trap and if the defending players are in position, then that should be enough.  However, not all of the defending players were as adept at the trap on other teams compared to the Devils. Therefore, those players would get a little hook or hold on the attacking player to slow them down further.  I suspect those players resorted to obstruction to ensure that they wouldn't be beaten or to impede an attacking player who was just about to beat them in the neutral zone.  Since the Devils were experienced in playing in the trap after their success in 1995, the players knew where they needed to be and what they needed to do in their roles on the ice while other teams were still learning it.   They didn't have to struggle to understand and perform the tactic and resort to fouling as a result.  Sure, the Devils' trap slowed down the opposition and the game, but they done so legally.

The success with the trap had a longer reaching effect than just an awesome 93-94 season and a Cup in 1995.  Since 1995, it has become an unofficial requirement that all Devils players will either learn how to play defense in some manner or find a new team. There may be defensive-minded forwards and defensemen, but skaters who can't defend will not last in New Jersey.  It still  holds even to this past season.  For example,  Mattias Tedenby was benched or given limited minutes under Lemaire until the coach felt he's learned enough about positional defense to get regular minutes. For a second example, it's no accident Ilya Kovalchuk's defending in April was far and away better than what it was in October - he was drilled on defending throughout the season. While the Devils haven't always ran a neutral zone trap after Lemaire got fired left the team in 1998, it did cement a part of the franchise's identity.  

To that end, that's really what Devils fans need to know about the neutral zone trap. The videos do a great job explaining what the tactic is and the ins-and-outs of how it works.  What fans also need to know is that the Devils brought this tactic out when few, if any, NHL teams were doing so in the mid-1990s. The entire team followed Lemaire's instructions on how to perform the neutral zone trap, and that made their use effective since any line could set-up in the 1-2-2 as needed.  After the Devils' success over higher-seeded teams and a mighty talented Detroit team in 1995; other teams decided to play a trapping system. By then, the Devils had experience in the system, they already were committed to the system, and knew how to perform in it without resorting to cheap obstructive penalties.  Overall, the Devils' success with the neutral zone trap in the mid-1990s ensured that Devils hockey would always be about being responsible on defense.

That's how I see the neutral zone trap in light of the history of the New Jersey Devils. What do you think about the trap?  Why do you think the Devils collectively bought into this system so well?  Why do you think some people regard the trap as a travesty? Do you think it had the big impact as I think it did with respect to the franchise as a whole?  Did I miss anything in general with respect to the trap? Please leave your answers and other comments about the neutral zone trap tactic in the comments.  Thanks for reading.

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