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The Devils Success so Far: Not From a Trap

On Monday, Puck Daddy highlighted a story from Robert Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that went up on Sunday praising the New Jersey Devils.  While the Devils lost last night, the Devils won their previous 8 games and they are ranked #2 in the SB Nation NHL Power Rankings right now.  At 14-5-0 in the middle of November, can someone really complain?

Don't get me wrong, it's great that out-of-market writers praise the Devils.  But I must take issue with his central thesis: that the Devils are getting it done with a neutral zone trap. They're not.  Thankfully, Rossi actually praises the neutral zone trap tactic and correctly identifies it as the main tactic of those dominant Montreal teams in the 1970s.  That's refreshing and I don't have any problems such reasoning.  If it works, it works.

Yet, that's not how the Devils have been so recently successful. The Devils really aren't trapping through games nor are they succeeding because of the trap.

I ask you, would a team that has been trapping give up the first goal or the first two goals as often as the Devils, five times in their last six wins - now six times in their last seven games?

Would a team that has been trapping get out shot three times in their last five games, not including allowing 35 in Philadelphia last night?

11/18/09 Update: Thinking about it, I feel the highlight video from from the Devils' 5-2 win over Washington on 11/14 is a good argument against the Devils winning with the trap.  Is coming from behind from 2-0 in their own building to score 5 unanswered goals really the work of a team sitting back?  Is this really the result of the ultra-defensive hockey that some claim the Devils solely rely on?

Yes, the Devils have always stressed defense.  The team is currently sixth in the league with an average of 28.1 shots against per game; they lead the league with an average of 2.10 goals against per game; and they boast the team's seventh best penalty killing unit with a 83.6% success rate.  To make it in New Jersey, forwards must backcheck and players must be aware of their position all the time.

However, that is not the same as a 1-2-2 set-up or a neutral zone trap.  I'm not so naive as to say the Devils haven't dropped into a 1-2-2 set up or just drop 5 guys behind the blueline in the dying minutes of a games and just clear the puck to stem a desperate attack by an opposition.  Yet, it's not what the Devils have been doing since minute one.

Admittedly, there is a bit of a hypocrisy here.  With Jacques Lemaire as head coach and the Devils succeeding in the regular season, it's easy to assume that the Devils must be trapping again and as such, they aren't conceding any goals. After all, it's how they became contenders since 1994 and won their first Stanley Cup in 1995.  But that doesn't wash today.  As if the only way to play defense these days is to clog the neutral zone or the slot - like Philadelphia did last night or what the Rangers did constantly under Tom Renney.    I'm not even sure how the traditional neutral zone trap would be so effective, given that referees still call obstructing slashes and hooks on players' hands and the elimination of the center red line, allowing two-line passes to stretch the defense.   Nonetheless, the perception remains.

So what's the reality?  The Devils have managed to get their wins - again, often from some form of a deficit in recent weeks - through belief and their work ethic.  Even when going down 2 goals to the Capitals on their first two shots, were the Devils demoralized and gave up the game? No, they regained confidence with some strong shifts and began their comeback (and extra 3 goals to win it) with a goal in the first period.  When being beaten by Pittsburgh for the first half of their game last Thursday, the Devils started to respond, they continued to work, and they managed to equalize and then pull away with the game.  And when the Devils do hold an opponent to less than 20 shots, as they did in Tampa Bay on Halloween, that wasn't the trap at work. That was the Devils at their best in dominating an opponent in everything - puck possession, hustling, shooting, etc. - but the score thanks to Antero Niittymaki standing on his head.

Again, I see where Rossi was coming from and I appreciate his praise of the Devils.  I have no problem, quarrel, or beef with him.   What I do have a problem with is the common perception is that the Devils still sit back and trap their opposition, therefore, that is why they have won so much recently.  It's not true; and I'm not even the first to speak out about it this season.  ILWT user elesias wrote a solid FanPost on his thoughts on the subject here.

Solid defending and great goaltending does not mean the Devils are trapping.  Moreover, given that the team has come from behind so many times on their erstwhile winning streak - I don't see how that can be construed as a team sitting back given that the Devils had to press the issue to get to an equalizer and then get the go-ahead goal(s). 

Again, they have done this so often recently; this being working so hard to score goals to come from behind to win hockey games.  How can anyone point to the trap or any defensive system as the cornerstone of the Devils' recent winning ways? The Devils haven't scored all these goals solely on errors by the opposition. They aren't all goals on a counter-attack.  So I'm baffled by the source of the praise.

There is some hope that this perception is changing.  At the NHL Fanhouse's 2-on-1 feature on Monday, Adam Gretz and Tom Mantzouranis discussed the Devils' then-ridiculous winning streak without mentioning the trap even once.  Proof that it can be done.  Moreover, the other players in the league seem to know better.  According to perceptive ILWT user drhgzang in the comments from the Philadelphia recap, Chris Pronger knows the Devils aren't just holding back:

I thought it was great when Vs. interviewed both Pronger (in the 1st) and John Stevens (in the 2nd) and both of them pointed out that the Devils were playing very offensively and we’re trying to speed the game up and put the Flyers on their heals. Actually when the interviewer asked Pronger about how the Devils "sit back" he replied – "not on the tapes Ive seen."

Well at least the Flyers have caught on…

I'm confident Chris Pronger isn't the only one in the league who recognizes how the Devils play. Hopefully, the rest of the general hockey media as well as non-Devils fans will catch on soon enough.