Early this year, in the Canadian Women's Hockey League, the Calgary Inferno unveiled an "innovation" against the powerful Montreal Canadiennes, lining up with four forwards and a lone defenseman rather than the traditional 3-2 formation that almost every team in the world employs. You can watch the full game on the CWHL website.
"We asked ourselves where they were going with it," said Canadiennes head coach Dany Brunet on Habs Eye On The Prize. "We saw their starting lineup and asked whether it was going to be a trick play to start the game."
It was no trick, nor was it an innovation. The system is called The Torpedo, and it has been around for nearly 70 years. Where a traditional hockey lineup will have three forwards (two wingers and a center) in front of two defensemen, the Torpedo features two forwards, two "halfbacks," and a single defenseman in front of the goaltender. According to Slate, the forwards operate as full-time forecheckers, harassing opposing defenders in the offensive zone and lingering in the neutral zone looking for a quick outlet pass and a breakaway attempt when their team is in the defensive zone.
The halfbacks operate similar to an offensive defenseman, working the corners in the defensive zone and looking to spring into the attack at the first opportunity, where they create a sort of fulcrum point for the team in the offensive zone. The defender functions similar to a defensive defenseman, planting himself in front of the goaltender and trying to keep the slot clear of attackers, while bringing up the rear during the attack.
The system is the brainchild of Russian National Team legend and hockey revolutionary Anatoli Tarasov, who employed a version of it at the 1972 Olympics. In that contest, the Russian national team earned yet another gold medal, torching opponents for 33 goals in five games in what was actually one of their worst Olympic performances during their era of domination.
However, the system took root in Sweden, where pioneering coach Hardy Nilsson used it to lead Djurgardens IF to back-to-back league titles beginning in 1999. Nilsson took the system with him to Salt Lake City as the head coach of the Swedish national team, leading the Swedes to the top of their group while outscoring their opponents 14-4 before losing a stunning quarterfinal game to 0-3 Belarus.
The system caught on in the American college game, where coaches like Shannon Miller at Minnesota-Duluth used it to great effect. However, the system has failed to be embraced by the NHL, even after the dissolution of the red line in 2005 eliminated the two-line pass limitation.
For one, there are not enough players with the athleticism, endurance, and skill required to play the halfback position. The halfbacks must cover the length of the ice with regularity, and require a full range of offensive skill combined with strong defensive capabilities. Drew Doughty is the exception rather than the rule, and while the league's two-way centers would likely be able to handle the position, the position would leave too many holes on the roster. It seems like a strategy that only the league's most talented teams could effectively utilize.
Another issue is that the defensive liabilities of the system make it difficult to win a championship in the league's playoffs. In a league that has seen teams employ the neutral zone trap and the left-wing lock to great effect, this problem appears to be difficult for coaches to overlook in the tradition-laden NHL. While the system overall can be surprisingly effective as a defensive stalwart -- the Russians showed no drop-off in goals allowed using the system in 1972, and Djurgardens had the top defense in the KHL while using the system -- its propensity for allowing the odd-man rush at inopportune times has often cost its practitioners. This was never more apparent than the Swedish team's improbable 4-3 loss to Belarus in 2002, and is further evidenced this past season in the CWHL game referenced above.
Nonetheless, it certainly seems that the system could be effective in the NHL. Calgary is leading their division in the CWHL since installing the Torpedo, and the success of Djurgardens is difficult to overlook. Just as Tarasov's innovations and tweaks led to the Russian revolution within the game, an innovative, tweaked version of the Torpedo could prove successful.
Despite its reputation for allowing too many breakaway goals, the system has often provided outstanding defensive results overall, as the torpedo forwards provide more time of possession in the attacking zone and limit the opposition's buildup play. The system's spectacular public failures might be outliers that could have happened to any team, any time, using any given system of play.
The NHL is due for another innovation, as the success of the neutral zone trap revolution was over 20 years ago now. Maybe the next evolution in professional hockey could be found by going back to the future.