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Phil Housley returns to roots as coach of Sabres

Wants to bring 'attacking mindset' to Buffalo, where he played his first eight NHL seasons

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Phil Housley has the wow factor.

They called him "Wowie" Housley when he went straight from high school to the Buffalo Sabres and piled up points as a teenaged defenseman. He played 21 seasons in the NHL and retired with more points (1,232) and games played (1,495) than anyone else born in the United States, and made the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Now he's back in Buffalo, back with the team that selected him No. 6 in the 1982 NHL Draft, back with the team for which he starred his first eight seasons, back where he belongs if you want to be romantic about it, as coach.

"Nineteen eighty-two, I'm sitting in the reds, watching him play hockey, and he's come a long way," Sabres owner Terry Pegula said Thursday.


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But the Buffalo part of Housley's background is just a bonus. The key to this hiring was in the second sentence of the statement Sabres general manager Jason Botterill released: "His approach to the game aligns with the way we envision our hockey team playing." The key for the Sabres, after six straight years out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, will be how Botterill, Housley and their staffs build around that vision.

"I think the brand of hockey is just [having] an attacking mindset, playing with speed, playing with pace, playing fast," Housley said. "That includes a five-man attack. Our defense [is] going to be very involved in the play. We have to play good defense, obviously, but I think if we can get five guys up in the play, whether it's on a breakout through the neutral zone or in the offensive zone, I think it gets the odds in your favor. It's going to be fast."

Botterill is a first-time GM. Housley is a first-time coach. If there is a concern, it is inexperience. But Botterill spent 10 seasons in the front office of the Pittsburgh Penguins and helped build three Stanley Cup championship teams, including the past two. He was GM of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League, which groomed players like forwards Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary, and goalie Matt Murray. His emphasis is on drafting and development.

Video: Phil Housley on becoming new Sabres coach

He said three things drew him to Housley:

1. Organization. Housley is detailed and prepared. He plans short, high-tempo practices.

"That's where you have to draw from, and then the games, I believe, become a little easier, because you are prepared to play that way," Housley said.

2. Communication. Housley has connected with players on a personal level. That seems especially important when it comes to center Jack Eichel, 20, the No. 2 pick of the 2015 draft, even though Eichel has denied reports of problems with the previous coaching staff.

"It's about creating those relationships with your players," Housley said. "They've got to know where you stand, and you've got to know where they stand."

3. Track record in development. Housley coached in high school in his native Minnesota, was an assistant twice for the U.S. at the World Junior Championship, coached the United States to gold at world juniors in 2013, and was an assistant on Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey 2016. He spent the past four seasons as an assistant with the Nashville Predators, helping them make their first Stanley Cup Final appearance this year.

"He gets the most out of his players, the most out of the young players," Botterill said.

Housley coached perhaps the best top four defense in the NHL in Nashville: Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, and P.K. Subban. In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they fueled the offense while shutting down opponents like Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan Getzlaf. He will not have Ekholm, Ellis, Josi or Subban in Buffalo, but as he said: "Those guys were young at one point too."

What he will have in Buffalo are defensemen like Jake McCabe, 23, the captain of his gold-winning world junior team and a second-round pick (No. 44) in the 2012 draft; Rasmus Ristolainen, 22, a first-round pick (No. 8) in the 2013 draft; and Brendan Guhle, 19, a second-round pick (No. 51) in 2015.

"I think it's just developing them," Housley said. "It's about just learning the system, learning to play the way we want to play, and they will be heavily involved in our attack. I'm not saying we're going to go reckless abandon here. We're not going to be reckless and defensive liabilities. But we want to have our defense into the play. … We have to give these guys responsibility to make plays, and I think in return they're going to make the right decisions."

They need that more than nostalgia.

"We're definitely going to be competitive," Housley said. "I think the people that come to the games are going to really like the brand of hockey here. I think the guys are going to be excited to play the brand of hockey that I'm going to bring forward, and I think that's just part of the whole process of building the culture."

All photos are courtesy of: Bill Wippert/Buffalo Sabres

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