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Stifling defensive systems tricky to address

Guy Boucher's 1-3-1 system has some fans – and team's – up in arms. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

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Guy Boucher's 1-3-1 system has some fans – and team's – up in arms. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Anyone who watched the Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers try to bore each other into submission Wednesday night must have felt like they went to a staring contest and a hockey game broke out.

Most of us can agree it was a pathetic display by both teams, unless of course you like paying good money to watch two teams play table hockey. While convalescing from knee surgery at his home in Tillsonburg, Ont., former NHL hanging judge Colin Campbell watched the proceedings and had a unique take on the, ahem, action.

(A quick aside. The people who operate NHL.com decided to make the Lightning-Flyers stalemate a “must see” on their website Thursday. Do these guys even get it?)

“Playing like that will cure the concussion problems in a hurry,” said Campbell, whose job as senior vice-president of hockey operations is to monitor such things. “Pretty tough to get a concussion when nobody’s doing anything.”

Much was made of the tactics employed by Lightning coach Guy Boucher and Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, and good on Laviolette for exposing what he thought was a crime against excitement. Campbell said the league’s GMs will certainly talk about it when they meet next Tuesday in Toronto, but don’t expect a mid-season rule change a la Sean Avery.

“I’m not even sure what we would be able to do about it,” Campbell said.

Right now, all that exists in the rulebook is a provision to keep the flow of play continuous, but the onus on doing that rests with the team in possession of the puck, not the team that is doing absolutely nothing, and we mean nothing, to try to get it back. Under Rule 72.1, which deals with refusing or abstaining from playing the puck, the rulebook says, “The purpose of this section is to enforce continuous action and both referees and linesmen should interpret and apply the rule to produce this result.” More directly, Rule 63.1 governing delay of game reads, “A player or team may be penalized when, in the opinion of the referee, is delaying the game in any manner.”

What this all comes down to, really, is the age-old rule of unintended consequences. When the NHL radically changed the game and opened it up to provide more offense, one of the major tenets of its overhaul was to take out the red line for purposes of calling offside passes. And while it has generally been a positive move, leading to numerous long-bomb passes that result in breakaways and goals, it also encourages coaches like Boucher to sit back into the 1-3-1 defense to prevent his team from being burned by the big play.

It’s actually called good coaching, unfortunately. And while many of the (announced) 19,204 in attendance at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa would have loved to see a good old 1980s shootout, you can bet they were just as happy their team managed to win 2-1 in overtime. After all, it’s OK to be bad and it’s OK to be boring. You just can’t be both simultaneously.

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And Boucher, unlike a lot of other NHL coaches, can play that kind of style because he knows his players have bought into his system. He also knows his goaltending has been brutal and for all the trapping his team has done, it stands in the lower third of the league in goals-against average. He’s also aware he has the kind of offensive talent in his lineup that allows him to flick the switch immediately and send his players into attack mode if they need a goal. Not all coaches have that luxury. Some of them have to play that way to keep their jobs.

Campbell said when he was coaching the New York Rangers, teaching a guy such as Alexei Kovalev to play the trap was about as productive as hitting himself in the head repeatedly with a ball-peen hammer. Convincing players such as Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky to do the same was about as successful.

“They would tell me they didn’t win all those Cups by skating backward,” Campbell said.

So, what to do about the kind of display the Flyers and Lightning put on Wednesday night? You could try to ban zone defenses, but that seems unwieldy at best and unrealistic at worst. You could put the red line back in, but that also seems like a step backward. You could slap guys like Boucher up the head and tell them not to direct their teams to play that way, but that seems rather extreme.

It’s all well and good to admonish the Flyers and suggest they try to beat the trap with their speed, but had they done that and turned the puck over, Martin St-Louis was the man playing high, so it would have been his breakaway coming back the other way. And with the margin between victory and defeat so thin, nobody wants to be the guy who is stripped of the puck and causes a goal against.

But in the end, the responsibility for winning and playing the game at a high tempo belongs to the coaches and the players. After all, the Flyers, who came into the game as the league’s highest-scoring team, took just 15 shots and scored once. They were willing to play the chess match just as much as the Lightning when the better strategy might have been to kick the board over and send all the pieces flying.

The NHL has long been a copycat league, but the last thing anyone needs is for 28 other coaches to emulate Boucher and Laviolette’s strategies from Wednesday night.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column

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