It is not often that coaches see offense as a gamble. After all, the one sure thing in virtually every sport imaginable is that you can’t win if you don’t score.
The NFL has wagered that fans want to see points so much that it consistently has altered its rules to favor offense. Major League Baseball went all in on the 1998 home run battle between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa even though there was ample evidence to suggest it was fueled by widespread performance enhancing drug use throughout the game.
In the National Hockey League, Barry Trotz estimates, teams devote roughly 75 percent of practice time and drills to “the offensive part of the game.”
Even so, the Nashville Predators coach plans to remain conservative as he tries to figure how he parlay his team’s first-rate defense into consistent victories. Never mind that the Predators are well behind the rest of the league in terms of offense and that three times in the last nine games they did not score at all.
“We’re a good hockey team in a lot of areas of our game,” Trotz said. “The one area where we have to get better is creating more chances offensively without doing anything defensively where we’re playing with a lot of risk, unnecessary risk.”
Following a 3-0 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks – the Western Conference’s highest-scoring team – Nashville was last in the NHL in both shots per game (21.1) and goals per game (1.83).
The only other team at less than two goals per contest, Columbus (1.93), at least averaged 27.8 shots each time out, which was tied for 20th. In fact, every other team in the league averaged more than 25 shots per contest.
Chicago had a 27-17 edge in shots, including 20-7 through the first two periods, in the first of five meetings between the Central Division rivals. It was the 11th straight game the Predators were on the short end of that statistic and the fourth out of the last six in which that deficit was 10 or more.
“That’s what we are,” right wing Martin Erat, tied for the team lead with seven points, said. “We’re not going to get 40 shots every night. We have to play the game tight – 2-1, 1-0 or 3-2 – and that’s how it’s going to be all season long. It’s a playoff mentality and you know you’re not going to score a lot of goals.
“But if you can do a lot of good stuff defensively you’re going to get rewarded.”
To this point, they have been.
One-quarter of the way through the lockout-shortened campaign, Nashville was alone in sixth place in the Western Conference standings and, therefore, on track to reach the postseason for the eighth time in nine seasons. Its goals-against average of 1.92 was tied for second – with Chicago – in the conference.
Even in some of its most offensively challenged times, though, the franchise always has managed to score an average of more than two goals per game. Its worst offensive season was 2002-03 when it scored 183 times in 82 games (2.23 per contest). In its expansion season of 1998-99, it scored 190 times.
“I think we’re playing well defensively in some areas,” defenseman and captain Shea Weber said. “We’re not giving up a lot of great second opportunities, or a lot of bad chances. It’s not as many chances as it looks on the shot clock. We’re just good in our own end sometimes and then we just can’t generate anything in the offensive zone.”
It is not likely to get easier any time soon.
On Tuesday, Nashville hosts San Jose (7 p.m., Fox Sports-Tennessee), which had the league’s best defense with an average 1.82 goals allowed in concert with an offense that ranked among the top 10 with 2.91 goals per game -- prior to a 6-2 loss to Columbus on Monday. The Sharks also are one of 11 teams that average better than 30 shots per game.
“We have to correct some of the offensive part of our game – the offensive zone, creating some chances off the rush, creating some chances off the cycle, power play has to get going and we have to have a lot more traffic … and a lot more net presence,” Trotz said. “… It’s a mindset. It doesn’t matter if you have last year’s team or this year’s team, you still have to buy in and play that way. We went through periods last year where we had the same.”
The real risk will be to stick with the status quo.