Posted: Monday December 5, 2005 2:11PM; Updated: Monday December 5, 2005 2:11PM
It's a pretty simple concept -- separate the offensive player from the puck.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
When Brian Burke took over as GM of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, he vowed that his team would play an up-tempo, aggressive brand of hockey -- similar to the team he built in Vancouver. To emphasize his point, Burke hired Randy Carlyle, who had served as the head coach for the Canucks' top AHL affiliate in Winnipeg, as the new boss behind the Ducks' bench.
Up-tempo. Aggressive. That's how things started this season -- and it worked through the first dozen games, with the Ducks going 7-4-1. Then the team hit a 0-5-3 patch and the thinking of the coaching staff began to change. Even through that nice October ride, Carlyle didn't like his team's inconsistency. In the middle of the eight-game slide, Burke stepped in and dealt Sergei Fedorov and his big salary to the Blue Jackets.
While the deal was a huge cap coup, it also signaled a retrenching of how the Ducks might adjust their on-ice approach. Carlyle wanted to cut down on the team's neutral-zone turnovers. His contention was that his defensemen needed to exercise more discretion in joining the rush (and that's coming from a former Norris Trophy winner who registered 82 points in 76 games with the Penguins in 1981).
The Ducks lost the next two games after the Fedorov deal, but slowly Carlyle's message took hold. The Ducks have won four straight at home and 5 of 6 overall, yielding just one goal against in each of those wins (and eight total). Those kinds of results give a coach plenty of credence in support of his style of play. Suffice it to say, any notion of firewagon hockey is on hold right now.
That's exactly what many NHL observers thought would happen once teams got into the season and assessed their clubs in relationship to the new rules governing the neutral zone -- particularly the effect of removing the red line for two line passes. Yes, it allows for longer lead passes and provides stretch potential on offense. But many also pointed out that defensively teams could easily modify the neutral-zone trap that bogged down play through the 1990s.
Well, put the Ducks on that list. They are routinely dropping four men between the blue lines, with one man passively funneling the puck carrier to one side -- typically the Ducks' left wing side. Even when the opposition has the puck in full possession behind their net, the Ducks are using just one man deep in the zone, with the wingers positioned on the boards nearer the blue line than the goal line. They are firmly entrenched in trying to capitalize on failed forays through the neutral zone, working solely on turnovers to generate offense.
Not that there is anything wrong with that. But if you're looking for games with flow and offensive creativity, the Pond isn't the place to partake. During their recent run of five wins, two were by 3-1 counts and two were 2-1.
The Ducks have tallied five goals or more only three times. But they are winning. And with the vigilant standard being applied to the rule book, the Ducks aren't allowed to muck it up through hooking, holding and interfering -- although the Ducks have taken the second-most restraining penalties in the league. Still, the league mandate means they must move their feet to maintain defensive positioning.
There is no such mandate, though, requiring teams to move their feet in the offensive zone without the puck. Thus -- for better or worse -- the trap lives.