Saturday, June 17, 2017

New head coach Phil Housley and his impact

Published by, 6-16-2017

Phil Housley was a wundekind who entered the NHL right out of high school at the age of 18. Legendary coach Scotty Bowman was at the helm in Buffalo at the time and was retooling the Sabres in 1982, saying goodbye to the French Connection-era in Buffalo and starting with anew with draft picks and Housley was one of three first-rounders selected that year (Paul Cyr, Dave Andreychuk.)

Make no mistake, the South St. Paul High School graduate was all offense from the back-end to the point where Bowman couldn't trust him on defense his sophomore season. WGR 550's Paul Hamilton reminded us yesterday that Housley played center for much of his second season, one in which the 19 yr. old amassed 31 goals and 46 assists in 75 games to earn an All-Star berth. It took Housley a long time to learn the defensive aspects of the game with Hamilton stating that he started noticing how far his defensive play had come when Housley was with the Washington Capitals some 15 yrs. and five teams later.

Housley retired with 1232 points (338+894) in 1495 games and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015.

Over the course of the last four years he's been transferring his 21 yrs. of NHL experience to a new generation of defensemen as a coach at the NHL level. He actually began as a high school coach in his home state of Minnesota beginning in 2004, a year after he retired. Housley then moved on with Team USA and was hired by the Nashville Predators that same year. Housley guided Team USA to the gold medal at the IIHF World Junior Championships in 2013 and hooked up with Barry Trotz and the Nashville Predators a few months later. Trotz was replaced by Peter Laviolette in 2014 and the only assistant to remain with the club was Housley, who had been given complete control over the defense by both coaches. In his four years with the Preds he made the defense-corps the most active and dangerous group in the league.

Now it's on to Buffalo and his first-ever coaching gig which happens to be in the city where he started his NHL career.

Housley was not a "homer-hire." Sure the team drafted him and he was a Buffalo Sabre for eight seasons, but nostalgia wasn't the driving force in this hire any more than the hiring of Jason Botterill as GM was. Both were amongst or atop the short list of up-and-comers in the coaching/GM ranks yet both happened to have played for the Sabres. If you're gonna eschew experience in the form of retread coaches and GM's to strike out fresh, this year, those two are two of the best hires a team could have.

Botterill came from the Pittsburgh Penguins organization and has three Stanley Cup Championships on his resume as an executive. He wants an up-tempo team. Housley is fresh off of a Cup Finals appearance where as an assistant coach, his defense was very active. The two philosophies merge, but now comes the tough part--finding the players to play the way they want.

As Sabres fans well know, having gone through a couple of GM's and four head coaches over the course of the last four years, ideas and ideals are espoused at the podium and transferring them to the ice successfully is another story. Botterill will have his work cut out for him as GM but he does have talent to work with while Housley will be in charge of grooming the players he has on hand to his liking. It will mean different things to different players but here are some of the players who may be impacted more than the rest.

Defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe

Housley was on WGR's morning show today when Hamilton asked him how he planned to iron out the inconsistencies of both young defensemen. "You can say inconsistencies, but I see potential," was Housley's response. "It's a tough league and you gotta earn your stripes a little bit, but you've got to put them in a position of strength."

Ristolainen started out last season strong bearing the weight of the huge demands former head coach Dan Bylsma put on him but ended up struggling through a good chunk of the 2017 portion of the schedule. McCabe rode an up and down season while logging career-high minutes with much of it coming on the top pairing. The 22 yr. old Ristolainen and the 23 yr. old McCabe are still very young as their struggles showed.

Housely saw Ristolainen at the World Juniors and told WGR's Mike Schopp and the Bulldog yesterday that "he's gonna be a player." He would follow up by saying that Ristolainen has turned into "exactly the player I thought he was going to be." As for McCabe, Housley was coaching him in that same World Juniors and the told the hosts that "he brings character and leadership" as well as some offensive skills. He concluded "These are two very young players I'm looking forward to working with.

Jack Eichel

If anyone knows the highs and lows of being an 18 yr. old prodigy in the NHL, it's Housley.

Jack Eichel was taken second overall in the 2015 draft and immediately joined the Sabres as the face of the franchise. Over the course of his two NHL seasons, Eichel has given us many glimpses of the greatness that lies within him, but he's also struggled be it with the high-ankle sprain he suffered to start last season, or with the former coach.

But his talents are undeniable. Housley witnessed Eichel's ability first hand in a game against his Predators back in January. See for yourself:

(Thx, Sportsnet)

This morning Housley told the WGR hosts that he wants to get Eichel "living in the moment" which seems as if that would fit him well. He followed up by saying, "He's a tremendous, highly-skilled player who's a game-changer, a game-breaker.

"If we can just get him to live in the moment, be in the moment, and not think about the expectation part of it" said Housley, who was also burdened by weight of his immense skill-level, "he will thrive in that."

Housley concluded that they want to take some of that burden and demand off of him so that he can just "be who he is as a player."

Evander Kane

Speaking of allowing a player to be who he is, Housley had some words for a player like Evander Kane.

We all know the story, but for those just coming on the scene Kane's an extremely gifted player who's on-ice work-ethic is impeccable. However it's his off-ice issues that have gotten him into trouble in the past and had many in Sabreland thinking he'd be traded last season.

Housley stated at the presser that he' wants to rub shoulders with his players. On the morning show today he clarified that there are also parameters with which to do so. He said that it's important to create relationships with the players but at the same time "setting the boundaries."

"There is a fine line you walk. You can't go over that line too much because you have to have a firm message, you have to have a strong voice." He went on to say that in creating a relationship gets the most out of players, "as long as know where you stand as the coach and the discipline and structure you bring.

"I think guys want that," he said. "They want structure, they want discipline, but they also need some freedom. What they do away from the rink and the decisions they make, obviously we don't want any distractions or anything that's bad for the organization, but you have to let them breathe. You have to let them be who they are and you have to let them have their personality but when you come to the rink it's about business."

We don't know where the organization stands on Kane right now, but what Housley said seemed to have Kane written all over it. Nobody has any issues with how the 25 yr. old approaches the game but his off-ice antics have gotten him into trouble to the point where there were distractions and it made the organization look bad.

Kane will be a free agent after the season and most feel that the team and him need to make a decision on his future in Buffalo now rather than later. It's a big decision for Botterill to make.

Housley invariably mentions Ryan O'Reilly whenever talking about his new team. O'Reilly's a pro, the type of player who's game is what it is and will thrive under any coach or system because of his talent, work-ethic and hockey IQ. And Kris Baker mentions a number of d-prospects who are mobile, puck-movers ready to join the rush like Brendan Guhle, Devante Stephens, Will Borgen and Casey Fitzgerald who will be "the greatest benefactors" with the hire of Housley.

Also, recent college graduate Will Butcher, who could become a free agent on August 15 after not signing with Colorado, is the type of player who might be interested in what the Sabres are doing. Butcher, an attacking defenseman, was a big piece of the NCAA hockey champion Denver Pioneers coached by Jim Montgomery.

Montgomery employed the very same attack system used by teams like Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay while also having a very active defense like Housley had in Nashville. If the 2017 Hobey Baker winner is interested in staying in a system like that and is willing to grow with a young Sabres d-corps, there's an opening in Buffalo right now.

Regardless of what the future holds, Housley is having an impact throughout Buffalo. Granted as of right now all we have is a warm, fuzzy feel complete with reputations and ideals to strive for, but it's still very enticing to have an organization barreling towards the future with an electric style of play and an "attacking mindset." Where it all ends up is to be determined, but for now it's pretty damn positive.

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