Time, Innovation, Not Rule Changes All NHL Needs

By Jason Menard

Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 system isn’t just putting the freeze on opposition offense – it’s blazing through a copy-cat league and making some general managers’ blood boil. But instead of taking a torch to the rulebook, the NHL must ensure that cooler heads prevail because – like all defensive innovations – it’s just a matter of time until the pendulum swings the other way.

The system, which sees one forward enter into a mild forecheck, backed up by three players across the neutral zone, and one defenseman playing a deep-centre-field/safety style of defense, is gaining popularity because it works.

Boucher’s system, which has seen so much success with the Tampa Bay Lightning, is just an evolution of the left-wing lock that he Detroit Red Wings played to perfection en route to etching their names on the Stanley Cup in 1997, and the neutral-zone trap that the New Jersey Devils’ employed during their 1995 Cup-winning run.

All of these systems are designed to flood the neutral zone with defenders, forcing a turn-over, and enabling the team that is employing the tactic to score on the counter attack. I’s the equivalent of the strategy that a counter-puncher in boxing uses – focus on defense and look to capitalize on a mistake.

In boxing, though, the old adage says that styles make fights. And when you have a pair of counter-punchers going toe to toe in the ring, it makes for an incredibly boring spectacle. Most team sports, by nature, are played in copycat leagues – when something’s shown to be successful, then other teams will pick it up.

And when something’s as effective as the aforementioned defensive systems in hockey, we can expect to see a lot of counterpunching battles that lack any impact.

There’s talk that the NHL general managers will be discussing the 1-3-1 system at an upcoming league meeting, but there’s no way they can legislate a zone system out of existence. But they will want to avoid the embarrassment that occurred on U.S. television Nov. 9th, when the Philadelphia Flyers began the game refusing to enter the trap. It was smart strategy, but it made a mockery of the game.

These systems aren’t new. The left-wing lock was actually developed by the former Czechoslovakia national squad as a way to contain the high-powered Soviet Union squad. And they’ve stood the test of time because, as mentioned, they work. Boucher’s been successful at all levels – from the QMJHL to the AHL to his current station in the NHL, in large part through the development of this system..

In focusing on the defense, people forget that Boucher’s teams are also solid offensively. Last year, the Lightning was in the top 10 in scoring at 2.94 goals per game. In the 2009-10 with the AHL’s Bulldogs, Hamilton led the league in goals against with just 182, but were third overall in scoring with 271. He’s set team success records everywhere and – most importantly – he’s won. So why wouldn’t the league’s coaches copy this format?

And they will. But instead of some unenforceable ban on zone defences, the league should do absolutely nothing. People will point to the change in interference rules that sped up the game coming out of the NHL lockout as proof that you can legislate offense. But unlike the Devils’ trap system, which relied on a lot of clutching and grabbing to help impede faster and better skaters, the 1-3-1 is all about positioning and creating turnovers. It’s a solid system that’s seemed pretty unbeatable up until now.

However all systems are beatable and someone will figure out a sure-fire way to bust the 1-3-1. Solid skating, size, and puck control are ways that have shown some impact. Someone will figure it out and then the solution will spread through the league like wildfire.

The GMs can meet all the want, but no rules changes are needed. The only two tactics they need to apply are simply patience and innovation.

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