by Thomas McPherson
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 neutral-zone trap
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