BUFFALO -- When Phil Housley was named coach of the Buffalo Sabres on June 15, he finally got the chance to have a team play the way he did as a Hall of Fame defenseman, with speed, skill and offensive creativity.
Housley took over the team he starred for as a player after spending the past four seasons as an assistant with the Nashville Predators. With Buffalo, Housley has a team with young players such as forwards Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, as well as veteran forwards Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, and Kyle Okposo.
With that group to build around, Housley will look to boost an offense that scored 139 even-strength goals and 199 total last season by playing with more speed and by getting the defense more involved in the attack.
[RELATED: Buffalo Sabres Season Preview]
"We want to be an aggressive team," Housley said. "I think everybody we've talked about playing aggressive offensively but we need to play aggressive defensively. I think defense gives you a chance to win every night and they'll understand that we want to be fast and aggressive. The days are gone when a guy wants to make a breakout pass and the [defense] just watched the rush go up and play; they have to get up in the play not only to maybe join the rush and add to the attack, but to be in the offensive zone, being able to keep pucks in, or else you're going to start playing defense."
Being aggressive to Housley means playing fast, intelligent and cleanly, with and on the puck. The message he's gotten through to his players has many of them eager to start the season.
"In speaking with him, he just wants us to play fast more than anything, and the positional things and the way we're playing, it'll come. But he wants us just playing, going, moving, and that's good," Eichel said. "The way that Phil wants to play is right up my alley; I'm excited for it. [Defense] down the walls, [defense] in the rush, that's me. That all sounds good."
The insistence on pushing the pace and creating offense means everyone will need to be more aware of where they're at when play turns back toward the defensive end. That part of the game isn't lost in the discussion.
"When the puck gets turned over, our mindset and our back pressure is going to be aggressive and we're going to try and take time and space away so teams can't make plays, and that requires playing without the puck and we've got to be accountable that we're just going to not think offense," Housley said. "And I'm not saying we're going to play reckless hockey because you're going to have to take what's given, but when we're playing defense we want to be aggressive in that area too and that's one of the things we talk about with aggressive style."
Asking more of the defense could be a tall task. The Sabres allowed 34.3 shots per game last season, the most in the NHL (34.3), but new general manager Jason Botterill overhauled the defense during the offseason.
The Sabres added Marco Scandella from the Minnesota Wild and acquired Nathan Beaulieu from the Montreal Canadiens in trades. They also signed Victor Antipin from the Kontinental Hockey League to join incumbents Ristolainen, Jake McCabe, Zach Bogosian, and Josh Gorges with the goal of making the Sabres a deeper and potent team from the back end.
"I think all of us on the back end can skate pretty well and we need to use that to our advantage," McCabe said. "If it's your strength, you have to use it and a lot of us on the back end can skate, so I think that's something you have. You'd be stupid not to use [that] so I think that going forward we're all really excited for it, including the forwards."
Housley is the fourth highest-scoring defenseman in NHL history, and it's clear that history has inspired the players to want to do more.
"We're here to learn from him and pick his brain, he was a [heck] of a player in his day," Bogosian said. "He gets the game. He's played for a while, he's coached for a while, he's been around forever. He gets the new style of game as well. Sometimes when you've been around that long, I think sometimes people forget that the game's changed so much. But he seems to be part of that new group with the skating and getting up in the play on the offensive side of things. Guys are looking forward to playing that style."