Caught in a Trap


The game clock hadn’t expired last Monday, but the Devils were already throwing their equipment in the air and embracing one another. The Stanley Cup was theirs and, with a dull thud, the book closed on the NHL season. The Finals eventually became dramatic—how can a full-length series not be?—but few called it great hockey.

The playoffs were mostly a trap-happy affair. In Canada, where they take the game quite seriously, the reviews were not good. In a typical dispatch, The Globe and Mail called the Finals “only sporadically entertaining,” won by a team who “scrap and fight for the puck at both ends of the ice, establish a lead, and choke off any attempts by the opposition to get to the net. It’s far from artistic.”

Even before the puck dropped for Game One, a skeptical media forced testy commissioner Gary Bettman to defend this product in his annual State of the League address. “I think the game is a terrific game,” he said and, channeling Yogi Berra, added, “It’s a game that gets more than its fair share of criticism, most of it unfair.”

Still, Bettman launched a trial balloon, suggesting that the league may discuss making the goals larger to offset the ridiculous size of contemporary goaltending equipment.

That balloon ignited a bonfire of opinions on how to restore the game’s appeal. The Devils’ boss, Lou Lamoriello, suggested that penalties run their full two minutes. Former Montreal superstar Guy Lafleur favored reduced rosters—and a return to three forward lines and two defense pairings. Scotty Bowman, hockey’s greatest coach, devised a rulebook makeover: Shrink the neutral zone, eliminate the two-line offside pass, bring back the tag-up rule, restrict goaltenders’ gear, and limit goalies’ ability to play the puck.

“I think people are panicking,” said Brian Burke, spinning Bettman’s message. Once the NHL’s head of hockey operations and now the Canucks’ GM, Burke told the Vancouver Sun last week that “so-called trap teams have won only three Cups in the last 15 years.”

Not exactly. Championship teams have trapped for decades, but coaching advances and bigger, faster players now make the tactic so effective that clubs with limited offense can win with it. Most teams (the Rangers notwithstanding) play defense-first systems throughout the regular season, which has a broader impact than eight weeks of playoffs. Even Pat Quinn, another of Burke’s former bosses, is mulling turning his Maple Leafs into a trapping team.

One day, perhaps, the NHL might consider the following to make the game exciting again.

1. Push the nets back to 11 feet from the end boards (they’ve been at 13 since 1999), restoring the extra four feet to the neutral zone.

2. Eliminate the two-line offside rule. Currently, trapping teams need only defend the 27 feet between their offensive blue line to the center red line. Allowing teams to pass from their own zone over the center red line would spread out the defenses over a 58-foot zone (including the extra four feet), make the middle of the ice easier to negotiate, and bring speed back into the game.

3. Today’s goalie equipment is not built to protect, but to enlarge the goalie. For those using the popular butterfly style, the oversized leg pads fan out like a cement wall from post to post. Set a maximum height to goal pads of four inches above the knee and return them to 10 inches wide from the current 12. Restrict the sizes of the chest protector and catching glove.

4. To benefit the goalies, eliminate all but wooden sticks. The new composite models rocket the puck at awfully dangerous speeds.

5. Eliminate substitutions on all coincidental penalties, providing more open ice for skilled special-teams players.

Unfortunately, the general managers met last January to recommend next year’s rule changes, well ahead of the current debate. So get ready to be trapped for another season.