Immediately the word stirs anger in the hockey purist, seeing the laid-back,
tight-checking defensive system as one of many reasons hockey is a far cry from
those fast-paced offensive days of the 1980s.
Last Thursday night the Rangers faced off against the New Jersey Devils and
came away with a 3-3 tie. The Devils are largely seen as the team that
originated the neutral-zone trap, first implemented by coach Jacques Lemaire in
the 1990s. Since then the Devils have won 3 Stanley Cups while playing
low-scoring, defensive hockey. This season's Devils, the defending Stanley Cup
champions, have taken defensive-minded hockey to an all-out extreme, coming in
with the 22nd ranked offense in the NHL but at the same time allowing fewer
scores than any other team. The Devils' influence on systems being used
throughout the NHL is widespread. Jacques Lemaire took the trap with him to
Minnesota, and teams like the Nashville Predators and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim
have their own versions of the system made popular-or to some fans, made
unpopular-by New Jersey.
Meanwhile, in New York, fans have called Glen Sather an anachronism. His
Edmonton Oilers represented the style of hockey in the 1980s as much as the
Devils epitomize low-scoring hockey of today. The game in Sather's glory days in
the aforementioned 1980s was a high-scoring, wide-open affair. Now in his fourth
season as Rangers GM and his first full season as head coach, Sather tried and
failed at resurrecting the style of high-octane offensive hockey that saw him
win five Stanley Cups. Inattention to defense just isn't allowed in today's NHL.
As a result, Sather finally relented and hired former Vancouver head coach Tom
Renney as an assistant and instructed him to implement a form of the
So far, 44 games into the season, some old habits die hard. At times the
Rangers still look disorganized in their own end, fail to clog up passing and
shooting lanes, and have a penalty kill that ranks 19th in the league.
But a closer look at the statistics reveals that the Rangers are on pace for
approximately 223 goals scored and 215 given up. This is a marked improvement
from the final tallies of the 2002-2003 season where the Blueshirts scored only
210 goals and allowed 231. Is this a sign that Renney's system has taken hold,
or at least had an influence? Some might argue it's likely the result of more
consistent goaltending and a healthier lineup from last season, but few can
argue that the Rangers are making better use of their resources and playing
better in both ends of the ice.
But as we look at how the trap is affecting the Rangers and the league as a
whole, is that style of hockey really as dominant as many pundits believe? Right
now, the Detroit Red Wings stand as the most dominant team in the league overall
and at the same time have scored the most goals. Colorado, Vancouver, and
Toronto are all tied for the second-best record in the league and rank 3rd, 4th,
and 5th in offense, respectively.
Across the league, scoring is down overall, but the teams who championed the
trap all the way to the playoffs last season find themselves struggling now.
Anaheim is a mere shadow of the team that won the Western Conference
championship in 2002-2003. Minnesota, after monumental upsets of the more
offensive-minded Avalanche and Canucks in the postseason rank 12th in the
Western Conference and last in their division. And the Devils, with Thursday's
3-3 tie in Madison Square Garden, now have won only 2 of their last 9 games, and
sit uncomfortably in 7th place in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers came out
of the contest maintaining their tenuous hold of the 8th and final playoff seed,
7 points behind the Devils but only one point ahead of the New York Islanders.
In light of that, perhaps the Rangers' seeming reluctance to adopt too many
tenets of their rival's ways might be a good thing. But the true enemy of this
team that seems to be stuck between two eras and two vastly different styles of
play is inconsistency. More than halfway through the season the Rangers have yet
to win 3 games in a row. But at the same time, they haven't lost 3 games
consecutively since early November. New pieces to the puzzle at this point won't
likely make a huge difference-the key is whether the team will finally come out
with a true system, something not so much akin to the Devils or the vintage
Oilers, but something uniquely New York in style
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