The Trap, Congress and Caps Coaches

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 29: New head coach Dale Hunter of the Washington Capitals looks on from the bench during the third period against the St. Louis Blues at Verizon Center on November 29, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

"The trap is hockey's Kardashian sister: annoying, dull, something you wish would go away quickly. However, it's very difficult to win without using some variation of it in the new speed-kills NHL." - Elliotte Friedman, January 3, 2011

"The eyeball test tells me the game is now backsliding too much. Five players idling in the neutral zone in a 1-3-1 configuration has become more prevalent than the stretch pass. I even saw up-tempo aficionado Peter Laviolette of the Flyers pull all five of his guys into the neutral zone for long stretches recently. And why not? It conserves energy because less skating is involved. Defensive players are getting away with more while moving their feet less." - Darren Elliot, January 24, 2011

"The players, of course, wouldn’t like to play trapping hockey all season long and it’s a concern that fans are paying lots of money to see exciting hockey and don’t want to watch teams sit on the puck or sit back all night." - Stu Hackel, November 10, 2011

Ah, the trap. Is anything in hockey other than Matt Cooke so reviled?

When the NHL releases its schedule during the summer, do fans circle the dates their teams play the Minnesota Wild as "must-see" hockey? Do television executives fall over themselves to show the world Guy Boucher's 1-3-1? Do the League's suits toast declining scoring as the on-ice product looks more and more like its pre-lockout self?

No, no, and no.

To be sure, there are rebuttals to each of those points - Minny fans will tell you that the current incarnation of their team doesn't deserve to inherit its predecessor's reputation, Bolts backers will point to the fact that their team's tactics are used relatively infrequently, and the precipitous decline in year-over-year power-play opportunities has to at least be mentioned when discussing the general disappearance of goals.

But "trap" remains very much a four-letter word in the hockey world, and everyone hates it... except when it's helping their team be more competitive.

In many ways, it's similar to how people tend to feel about Congress versus their respective representatives - It's always been the case that "Americans rate their own Congressional representatives more positively than the institution as a whole." As the populace bemoans all of the "pork-barrel legislation" coming out of Washington, they're thankful for any and all federal dollars that their individual members direct back home. Essentially, "As long as these are the rules, I'm glad my guy's taking advantage of them; my guy isn't the problem, everyone else is." And that's why nothing ever really changes, despite promises to the contrary.

In hockey, the trap (or the 1-2-2, the 1-3-1, the left wing lock... whatever name teams put on it to avoid using that word when talking about clogging the neutral zone) is treated similarly - "As long as these are the rules, I'm glad my guy's taking advantage of them; my team's system isn't the problem, everyone else's is." The result is predictable - win or give your team a better chance at winning and the fans won't care. And that's where the game is heading - back to 3-2 and 2-1 coin flips as teams implement "the great equalizer."

What we've seen here in D.C. is a bit of a microcosm of what's gone on League-wide. When Mr. Boudreau came to Washington, he brought with him a run-and-gun style that produced some of the most exciting hockey the League had seen in a generation or more. But after playoff disappointment and a defense that got particularly leaky at the same time that the offense ran dry, Boudreau became the Congressman who vowed to make real change but ultimately failed to deliver - after some time in our nation's capital, he got beaten down by the system and caved to pressure, abandoning reform for something more mainstream which he perceived would make him more likely to win re-election, as it were. The trap. Boudreau's Caps had gone from the team that needed to be neutralized to the team needing to neutralize its opponents.

It worked for a while, as Boudreau's Caps finished out last season strong, rarely winning or losing a game by more than a goal or two - just 11 of his final 50 games in 2010-11 were decided by more than two goals, after 11 of the first 32 had been (28 had gone that way in 2009-10). More importantly, the coin flips were coming up in Boudreau's favor, as the Caps posted a 30-12-8 record after the switch in systems. That luck continued through the first round of the playoffs, but ran out thereafter - four tosses of a coin will come up all-tails on occasion.

Boudreau tried to move away from the trap to more of a "hybrid" system at the outset of the 2011-12 campaign, but his goalies didn't make stops, his forwards didn't score goals and his defensemen didn't defend, and Boudreau was relieved of his duties, by no means blameless, but by no means the only one to blame.

Enter the establishment candidate and his 1-2-2, a system that eschews scoring on the rush because those goals aren't there when the going gets tough for cutting down on neutral zone mistakes by falling back and clogging the middle of the ice. Yep, the trap. Comfortable. Safe. Boring. But if Dale Hunter can win more coin flips than he loses the rest of the way - particularly in April and beyond - not a single Caps fan will complain. Such is the game.

For four years, Caps fans rooted for Bruce Boudreau to succeed. What the rest of the hockey world may not have realized at the time is that they should have been rooting for him, too. Because in a copycat league, his success could have meant a lot for people far beyond the Beltway - it could have meant real change.

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