The '95 Devils, 20 Years Later: How a Team and Its Infamous Trap Changed the NHL

Adrian Dater@@adaterNHL National ColumnistJune 8, 2015

Elsa/Getty Images

Jacques Lemaire gives a wry chuckle at the question. How do you respond to the people who say your 1995 Devils team and its neutral-zone trap ruined hockey?

"Those people don't know what they're talking about," Lemaire says, "and they never did know what they were talking about."     

It's been two decades of this now for him.

Lemaire does know what he's talking about. This is a man who has more Stanley Cup rings than fingers. He won eight with the Canadiens during his Hall of Fame playing career, won two more with the Canadiens as a front office executive and won one as coach of the Devils in 1995. At 69, he's still in hockey, working as a consultant for the Devils.

But even with his legendary name attached to it, and even with 20 years passed since the Devils swept the Red Wings to win the Cup that year, the team still receives more than its share of disrespect, even disdain.

When Yahoo's Greg Wyshynski asked former ESPN columnist and 30 for 30 producer Bill Simmons about one of the documentaries he considered, then rejected—about the mid-'90s Devils and their use of the neutral-zone trap—Simmons said, "We seriously thought about one about the Devils' trap and whether it killed hockey. And then we were like, 'Who would want to watch a whole documentary about the Devils' trap?' It was bad enough when it happened."

That's just the kind of comment that gets former longtime Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko's blood boiling. 

"In 1993-94, the year before we won the Stanley Cup, we were playing the trap—and we never heard the word 'trap,' by the way, from anyone on the coaching staff, ever—[and] we were second in the league in scoring to the mighty Red Wings and scored more goals than the New York Rangers, who won the Stanley Cup that year. Look it up," Daneyko told Bleacher Report. "Nobody ever brings that up. It drives me nuts. Even now, the perception is that we sat back and won 1-0 and 2-1 games, which is asinine."

Indeed, a check of NHL team scoring in 1993-94 shows that the Red Wings were first with 356 goals in 82 games, and second were the supposedly defensive-minded, trapping Devils, with 306—seven more goals than the Rangers.

5 NOV 1995:  COACH JACQUES LAMAIRE STANDS BEHIND THE BENCH DURING THE THIRD PERIOD OF A 6-1 LOSS TO THE MIGHTY DUCKS AT THE POND IN ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA.  AT RIGHT IS DEVIL''S ASSISTANT COACH CHRIS NILAN. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Cratty/ALLSPORT
Glenn Cratty/Getty Images

Here are some other scoring figures for the Devils in their trapping years that might surprise people: They were the second-highest scoring team in 1998-99, behind Toronto (268-248), the second-highest scoring NHL team in 1999-2000 with 251 goals and the highest-scoring team the following season with 295.

But people don't remember that. People remember the trap as the dividing point between eras.

The previous era was defined by teams like the Oilers, who scored a still-record 446 goals in 1983-84. The new era saw a three-year span between 1997 and 2000 in which no team reached the 280-goal mark.

The NHL being a copycat league in many respects, other teams started playing the trap, regardless of the perception that it was bad for the game. Even the Red Wings started a modified version, which they called the "Left Wing Lock," and won back-to-back Stanley Cups with it in 1997 and '98, despite scoring only 253 and 250 regular-season goals, respectively.

The NHL changed the rules after the 2004-05 lockout, removing the red line and allowing two-line passes through the neutral zone to try to stop trapping and increase offense. But scoring hasn't returned to its former levels. This season, the Lightning led the league with 262 goals, which would have been last in the league in 1985-86.

To be clear, there are other, legitimate reasons scoring is down in the NHL: quality of goaltending, size of goaltending equipment, considerably faster defensemen and greatly advanced scouting and systems analysis. Even in the trap's heyday, low scoring may have had more to do with the unpenalized clutching and grabbing that also characterized that time.

"I don't like to complain, because the rules were the rules and the same for everybody," Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg told Bleacher Report, "but, yeah, I would have liked to have played in the league about 10 years earlier and seen what kind of numbers I could get. After about '96 or so, it seemed like everything just became more like tackle football and not hockey. I liked the physical game, but it got a little ridiculous."

But none of those reasons shake the belief of some fans, especially casual ones, that the game has simply never been the same since those '95 Devils.

When Lemaire's trapping system first gained wide publicity, starting with that year's sweep of Detroit, it was mostly negative, and it has stayed that way for years.

"I can't stand the neutral-zone trap. I think it ruins the game, and I don't think people want to spend $50 on tickets to watch people play...soccer," NHL analyst and former player, coach and general manager Mike Milbury told the Sun-Sentinel in 1995.

Even three years ago, Milbury walked off the NBC set in protest of the Tampa Bay Lightning using a modern version of the trap, a 1-3-1 system by former coach Guy Boucher.

Former NHL great Mario Lemieux was a frequent critic of Lemaire's trap. After a 4-2 loss to Lemaire's trapping Minnesota Wild in the 2001 regular season, Lemieux presumably spoke for the league when he said (via ESPN), "That's not what we're trying to sell."

It's not like the mid-'90s Devils were the first team to deploy the tactic. Roger Neilson used the same system with the 1992-93 Rangers, but many of his players—especially captain Mark Messier—hated playing it, and Neilson was fired after the season. Much of it is anecdotal evidence, but many old-timers from Europe will tell you that the Czechoslovakian teams of the 1970s and early '80s played the trap to try to compete with the Russians in the Olympics and that many Swedish teams played it as well. 

And, in fact, Lemaire said he used it as a player with the great Montreal teams of the 1970s. 

"We didn't use it as a whole team, but I was always talking with my linemates [Steve Shutt and Guy Lafleur mostly], trying to think of ways we could be better defensively," he said. "And so our line would use that [trap] system."

But, Lemaire added with a chuckle, "It was mostly Steve and me doing the dirty work. And with a player like Guy, that's the way it should have been. We would always just tell him, 'If we get the puck, you go. Just go.' "

Still, the Devils are remembered as the team that perfected it, especially that 1995 version.

What exactly is the neutral-zone trap? The video below gives a nice explanation of it:

For those who didn't want to sit through the entire video, it can essentially be explained in this nutshell: The goal of the defensive team is to take away any passing or skating options through the center of the ice, to steer play off to the sideboards and "trap" the puck-carrier there, forcing either an ill-advised long crossing pass that could be intercepted or getting him to just dump it further up the boards and down the ice, where your own defensemen could retrieve it and start a counter-attack.

For the system to work at its best, it was crucial that the opponent be forced into giving up the puck before he reached the red line, which would nullify deep dump-ins without an icing violation. The idea was to "cut the ice in half," as Daneyko put it.

The other key to the system working would be the center and wingers on either end circling behind each other slightly no matter which way the puck went, so as to cut off passing options to defensemen behind them. If a puck managed to be passed to an opposing forward in the middle of the ice, it was then up to the trapping team's two defensemen to move up and cut off the play and hopefully create a turnover.

Many teams tried to perfect the trap, but Lemaire's Devils of '95 may have been the best. As Daneyko likes to point out, none of it would have been possible without the talent on that roster.

"If anybody could have done it like we did, they would have. It's about our players. We had an incredible defense, we had an incredible goaltender and we had plenty of goal scorers," said Daneyko, now a hockey analyst with the MSG Network. "Some of our goal scorers sacrificed some of their offense to make it work, and yet we were still a high-scoring team. We went 16-4 in the playoffs in '95, and we blew teams out 5-0, 6-1. We scored a ton of goals.

"I still don't get it. People think we just sat back. We didn't. We never just stood four people up at the blue line. We were an attacking team. I never heard the word 'trap' in our locker room once. It was just a media creation. But, yes, it was our defensive system. Are we supposed to apologize that we found new ways to stop teams and yet still score a lot of goals because of it?"

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - MARCH 2:  Former New Jersey Devils player Ken Daneyko looks on as the 1999-2000 Stanley Cup-winning Devils team is honored as part of a 25th Anniversary celebration prior to the start of the NHL game against the Toronto Maple Leafs o
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

In fact, Daneyko believes the trap wasn't even the '95 Devils' greatest defensive innovation.

"We had Larry Robinson on our staff with Jacques, and I really believe the biggest thing they taught us that nobody had ever heard of before was about proper stick positioning," Daneyko said. "It all about the stick being on the ice in the right position. We deflected a million shots and passes because of that. That was never heard of back then, but now that's all you hear coaches preach.

"I'd already played 11, 12 years in the league when Jacques and Larry first came aboard, and I learned more about defense in that first month under them than I did those first 12 years. That's why I was able to play another eight, nine years after that as a defensive defenseman. Larry's thing wasn't so much to go down and try to block a shot, because that could put you out of position in a hurry. It was to get the toe end of your stick to the puck and deflect it. It sounds so simple in hindsight, but we didn't do those things much before."

Scotty Bowman—the NHL's all-time wins leader, both in games and Stanley Cups, and the coach on the losing end of the Cup final in '95—said it wasn't just the Devils' defensive play that made the final that year so drastic; it was also his team's poor play.

The Red Wings were third in the league during that regular season, scoring 3.75 goals per game, and scored 3.86 per game in winning 12 of 14 through the first three rounds of the playoffs. They scored seven in four games against the Devils. Bowman called (via the New York Times) the Wings' play against the Devils an "embarrassment to the National Hockey League."

"We needed to play better away from the puck," Bowman told Bleacher Report. "When we didn't have the puck, some players lost interest."

A big part of Bowman's greatness as a coach was his adaptability. Despite his gruff persona, he was never set in his ways. And after being swept by the Devils, he took a page from their playbook and made it clear to some of his top offensive players that they would have to adapt to a more Devils-like style if they were to stick around. That nearly led to the trading of Steve Yzerman to the Ottawa Senators, and it did lead to the brooming of players such as Paul Coffey, Dino Ciccarelli and Keith Primeau.

Yzerman stayed, but only after pledging to become more of a two-way player. The sacrifice of some of his offense might have affected his offensive statistics, but it helped him win three Stanley Cups, in 1997, 1998 and 2002. Bowman was the coach for those '97 and '98 titles and says they won them using a "left-wing lock," which consisted of moving a defenseman (usually, in Detroit's case, Nicklas Lidstrom) up with the left winger and letting the right winger and center try to steer the puck over to the right side. Then, a swarming of that side would occur, leading to breaks the other way.

"Barry Smith, one of my assistants, brought that system back with him from Sweden where he used to coach," Bowman said. "It wouldn't have worked if I hadn't gotten more guys to buy in to it. Before that, we were too much of an offensive team, and some guys didn't want to work defensively.

"When we played Jersey in '95, we hadn't seen them all year until the Finals, because that was a lockout year and we were in different conferences. We knew about their trap, but some of our guys didn't really adjust to it once the games happened."

Lemaire, who won five Stanley Cups as a player under Bowman in Montreal during the 1970s, considers Bowman's kinda-sorta imitation of his defensive system the most sincere form of flattery he ever received in his coaching career.

"A lot of coaches tried to win with the system we had. But Scotty, he's so smart that he was one of the only ones to pull it off," Lemaire said. "I would sometimes kid him that maybe I deserved one of his rings he got in Detroit after that. But I got enough rings already to keep me happy."

It was with those words that Lemaire let out his biggest barrel-chested laugh of all.

Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.

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