On Defense, the Trap, and the Devils

For years, fans of the NJ Devils have had to listen to others blame their favorite team for killing hockey.

The mantra took up toward the end of the 90's and gained momentum right up to the lockout in 04-05. The term "dead puck era" was coined and often attributed solely to the Devils for their use of the filthiest of all terms, the neutral zone trap. That there were other contributing factors to the "era", or that the Devils were neither the originators nor sole implementers of the system were, and still are, largely ignored and overlooked facts simply because they had the most success with it at that time.

Regardless, the simple fact was that scoring was down from the heydays of the high-flying Gretzky led Oilers (8.03 goals per game in 81-82 versus 5.31 in 02-03). While it may not have been a steady decline, it was an overall decline, and 2.7 goals per game is pretty significant.

Coming out of the lockout, attempts were made to increase scoring and make hockey more exciting for fans, both new and old, in the hopes of increasing viewership, fanbases and, ultimately, revenue. Several of the rule changes specifically made the trap less effective, such as the elimination of the two-line pass, the introduction of the trapezoid behind the goal line, and an increased dutifulness by referees to call restraining penalties, and yet, "trap" is still a dirty word.

No, not just a dirty word. An insult. Lo to the fan of any team that might implement it in any capacity, or even just display a dedication to defensive responsibility. They will be systematically derided, chided, scolded, disparaged, castigated, rebuked, shouted down and lambasted by fans of any team who isn't allowed to skate unimpeded into the offensive zone and score at will.

Well, any team named the New Jersey Devils. The other twenty nine get a pass.

I often wonder what the alternative is that so many would rather see in hockey. Shall we remove off-sides calls? Goalies? Penalize any team that ever has more than one player in the neutral zone at a time? The great joy of watching your team win is that they overcame the other teams efforts to stop them from doing just that. Every team has its own strengths and weaknesses, and being able to cover the latter with the former, while simultaneously stopping the other team from doing the same is what makes competitive sports so relatable and enjoyable.

While an 8-5 beat down of a hated rival is exciting, it is exciting because it is not the norm. It is exciting because it is always exciting to watch your favorite team not just defeat, but completely crush and demoralize a rival. It is exciting because there is a sense--a dread--that anything can happen; a deep, never-fully-recognized, gnawing fear that they could come back and ruin everything. It is exciting because it doesn't usually happen.

Assuming one could legislate defensive acumen, goalie skill and strategy out of hockey and leave nothing but a back and forth 60 minute score-a-thon where 11-9 scores were typical, what sort of simple mind could derive pleasure from watching that night after night? When games devolve into consistent cases of whoever-has-the-puck-last-wins, there's no reason to watch anything but the last few minutes of a game where, if the outcome isn't already a foregone conclusion, it will be decided.

While low-scoring goalie duels (not to be confused with low-scoring displays of offensive ineptitude) might seem boring to a casual observer; back-checking, strong play from defensemen and outstanding saves from a goalie are just as exciting as watching your favorite team bury 10 goals. Sure, sweet toe-drag goals and end-to-end rushes where the guy skates through the whole team to score are exciting and get played on all the sports highlight shows, but, like any other sport, it is the strategy involved and adjustments made between periods that make the sport great. The dance between the offense and the defense. The line-matching and scheming to shut down the guy on the other team with the hot hand or the dangerous ability to always find an open guy in the slot with a perfect pass, or to find the hole in their stifling defense or goalie doing his best impression of an impenetrable wall. The feeling out of the enemy and adjusting on the fly to exploit a perceived weakness. The setting up of a set play or the rush of a broken play that results in a scoring chance, or defensive breakdown the other way, only to be thwarted and forced back to hopefully try again.

It's a bit ironic that teams in other sports, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants win games and championships through strong, shut down defense and just enough offense (and sometimes not even enough, their defense has to do that for them, too) and are lauded for it, while teams that follow the same philosophy in the NHL are looked down upon.

The phrase, "defense wins championships" is relevant in every sport for a reason. A good offense is indeed something to be desired, and something all teams should vie for, but a good defense is even better to have. Not every team is going to have an Ovechkin or a Malkin (and players of that caliber can get injured), but every team should seek to have a defense that can stop the likes of them or they're going to fall well short of their ultimate goal, which is to win the Stanley Cup.

An interesting note: since they began issuing the Rocket Richard Trophy in 98-99 to the player who scores the most goals in a season, no team that has had a player that won the trophy has won the Cup that year. Additionally, no team that has led the entire league in goals scored for the season has won the Cup. Contrarily, during that same ten year period, 3 teams that won the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed during the regular season won the Cup (98-99 Stars, 02-03 Devils and 07-08 Red Wings). Also, in three cases in the same 10 year period did the winner of the Frank J Selke Trophy for best defensive forward also hoist the Cup that year (Jere Lehtinen for the Stars in 98-99, Rod Brind'Amour with Carolina in 05-06 and Pavel Datsyuk with Detroit in 07-08).

So, does this mean every team should just play defense? Of course not. Every team has its own identity based on its ownership, its GM, its coaches, its players, and perhaps even its fans to a degree. Every team is unique and should play to its strengths and according to the agreed upon team philosophy for what it takes to win. Variety is the spice of life, after all. Tampa Bay and Carolina both recently won Cups with very aggressive teams and average defenses. Anaheim through stifling defense and brute strength. Detroit and Pittsburgh through a pretty good balance (though both definitely tipped toward the offense).

The point is, the Devils philosophy is no better or worse than your favorite teams, and just because your star player didn't get a single shot on goal all game doesn't mean the Devils are boring. It just means they're good at what they do.

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