Some teams want rules to spring neutral-zone trap


Florida Panthers general manager Bob Clarke will be front and center at the NHL general managers meetings today in Tampa, Fla., when the discussion gets around to the neutral-zone trap, the ploy that has enabled the NHL's have-nots to compete with the best teams.

"Some of the guys who are doing the squawking didn't win playing wide-open," he said, his voice rising in irritation. "Now they're not winning with close checking. It's easier to blame the other team's style than to look in the mirror."

Name a game in which defense finds the upper hand, and you can name a league in which rule changes were developed to help the offense.

The NFL has made rule changes to handcuff defenses. The NBA doesn't let teams use zones. The NCAA became so frustrated by North Carolina coach Dean Smith's four corners and the delay tactics used by also-rans, it went to a shot clock.

In the NHL, the trap begins with an opposing team's positioning a player in one of the two faceoff circles and forcing the puck-carrier to leave his team's zone by skating toward the open side of the ice or by passing to a teammate on the open, nonpressured, side.

Opposing forwards then clog the cross-ice passing lanes. Somewhere around the blue line, the player who initially forced the play attacks the puck-handler from the side, while a defenseman or forward closes in from the front. That traps the puck-carrier, who then must make an unwise cross-ice pass, attempt to hit the puck off the boards, risking an icing call or a dump-and-chase situation, or try to retreat to his own zone, which virtually stops his team's attack.

Most often, the result is a steal and a counterattack, and if you're rooting for the team that made the steal, it can be pretty exciting.

A lot of veteran NHL clubs are struggling against the trap, so -- what a surprise -- general managers are going to discuss what they can do about getting rid of it.

NHL vice president Brian Burke promised it would be on the agenda because there is concern about scoring being down and worry about the tactic making the game boring.

"In my mind, the trap is a fancy word for interference, and I'm interested to hear what others think," said Washington general manager David Poile. "We need to benefit the game in the long term, but I'm cautious about midseason changes."

Anything the GMs recommend has to be approved by the board of governors before it could take effect. Poile said he is more interested in seeing the rules on the books against interference and holding enforced on a consistent basis.

"The trap does three things," said Hartford Whalers coach Pierre Maguire, whose team uses the tactic. "It denies the other team continued puck possession, it stifles speed and rules out odd-man rushes [against the defending team]."

The trap pushes the puck to one side of the ice. The way to beat it is to support the puck-carrier by overloading the offensive side of the ice and concentrating on short, quick passes. That tactic ++ eliminates the need for the cross-ice passes, the chance of icing and the retreat.

It may sound easy, but it isn't. If it were, no one would be complaining.

The neutral-zone trap can be used to overcome a lack of talent and produce low-scoring games.

No one beaten by it wants to talk about the effort, talent, discipline and dedication it takes to play the trap well.

This season it has been used to perfection by the Panthers and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. They are expansion teams, and bTC both would qualify for the playoffs if they started today.

"Everyone [complains] about the high scoring in the All-Star Game," Clarke said. "They don't like that. They don't like what we do. All they want is their own team to win.

"Ah, let them change the rules. We'll play any way they want to play. We forecheck. We don't sit back and wait. We go after it. We'll compete. We'll play. The teams doing the crying are just jealous.

"They're a bunch of babies. We're not supposed to have babies in the NHL, but we've got 'em. They cry about our style of play. They cry about officials. They cry and cry. They always find an excuse for losing. They're just crybabies."

Winnipeg loyalty

The Winnipeg Jets are last in the Central Division with a 17-31-7 record. The fans' favorite player, Teemu Selanne, is out at least eight weeks with a severed Achilles' tendon. The team is in danger of not making the playoffs.

But the fans have kept coming.

"It's surprising, and I hate to say that," said Jets spokesman Mike O'Hearn. "But we continue to average about 13,000, depending mostly on walk-up. The question for us is, how much longer will they come if the wins don't come?"

Portland update

The Portland Pirates have only won once in their past eight games, going 1-5-2 after Sunday's 4-3 loss to Providence. Kerry Clark sat out that game as part of a two-game suspension for fighting; he'll also miss tomorrow's home game against Hamilton.

Bowman's insight

Detroit Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman is the man who gave Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld his first NHL head coaching job with Buffalo.

Asked how he thought Schoenfeld would do with the Capitals, Bowman said: "A coach can only do so much. Sometimes when you make a change, there is a reaction for a while. But to make a real difference you have to have time. I don't know how much time he has.

"Yeah, he has a contract, but contracts don't mean much. What you have to have is patience."

Bowman should know. He also fired Schoenfeld halfway through his first season, when the team was 19-19-4.

Bondra's blowout

When Washington's Peter Bondra scored five goals against Tampa Bay Saturday, it wasn't the first time he had produced big numbers. "I was a 10-year-old and scored 11 goals," the Caps right wing said with a smile. "It was a very good junior team. We won 35 or 37 to nothing."

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