It isn’t often you find a pair of management and coaching candidates so universally accepted by a fanbase, but the Sabres have found just that in Jason Botterill and Phil Housley.
You’d be hard pressed to find any significant contingent of the fanbase who didn’t want Housley named as head coach and the Sabres met those expectations with yesterday’s announcement. Housley comes to the Sabres after a successful turn as an assistant with Nashville, a gold medal as the head coach of the USA World Junior Championships roster and a handful of other roles tied to USA Hockey.
Nashville’s talented and active blueline was pretty much the antithesis of the defense corps the Sabres rolled out last season and hopes that Housley’s skillset in managing that group follows him to Buffalo. One of the most attractive things about him as a coach was the continued willingness of Nashville’s defenders to join the rush and push pace through all three zones. It’s a trait that came to define Housley’s Hall of Fame career and it’s something the Sabres sorely missed last year.
Alex Daugherty, co-managing editor of On The Forecheck, the Predators SB Nation blog, noted that Peter Laviolette still maintained a great deal of control over the style of play the Predators exercised while Housley served in something of a support role when it came to dictating the system and pace. What Daugherty did note was Housley’s influence on supporting that system, something that should be very encouraging to Sabres fans.
“In practices, he seemed to float regularly between one group and another,” Daugherty said. I would imagine that in one-on-ones, he was more likely to provide tips and pointers to the blue liners first, but he never shied from encouraging the forwards and sharing his knowledge of the defensive side of the game.
“Lavy’s system is pretty structured, but when you have guys like Subban, Josi, and Ellis, and you know you can push the pace pretty easily, you need a guy like Housley that can reinforce the importance of structure. Housley likely worked a lot with the forwards in knowing how and when to rotate defensively, especially when someone like Subban embarks on a tour of the offensive zone.”
At times last year it seemed like Buffalo’s system was disjointed. Postseason comments and reports seem to indicate that communication between the players and staff was lacking and some of what Bylsma was asking of his team was simply too complicated. Tim Murray’s comment over spending less time in the film room and more time having a coffee with the players comes to mind. Communication was one of the buzzwords Terry Pegula mentioned after firing Bylsma and Murray and after hiring Jason Botterill. Housley appears to have a similar track record as a coach, something that will be valuable with Buffalo’s young roster.
“What stood out most to me was the connection he had with the players on the team,” Daugherty said. “He seemed very comfortable interacting with the players and connecting with them on multiple levels, both as a coach and as a former player who played at such a high level. The Preds have considerable youth on their team (13 of our top 17 scorers are under 27 yo) and Housley led them with confidence.”
One criticism that’s been mentioned is that Housley isn’t walking into a locker room that features Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, PK Subban and Mattias Ekholm. Some wonder if he’ll be able to be as prophetic with a defensive unit that’s not nearly as talented as the one he’s leaving.
However, the Preds defense corps weren’t dotted with lottery picks either. Josi was a second round pick and Ekholm was a fourth rounder. Even Ryan Ellis had trouble getting over the hump as a regular NHLer, something many give Housley credit for guiding.
Daugherty noted that Josi’s development was well on the way to elite before Housley had arrived, but his influence was felt more by other players, Ellis and Ekholm included.
“Ekholm was consistently ignored by the previous coaching staff,” Daugherty said. “He really only got a fair chance at the lineup after [Housley] arrived, and he excelled almost immediately. I can’t speak for the personal connection Mattias might have had with Housley, but I think his results over the last three years speak for themselves.”
Sabres fans will need to temper expectations as we enter the season. We don’t know what type of NHLer Viktor Antipin will be nor do we know how much more Botterill has in store after bringing in Nathan Beaulieu. What we do know is the Housley has a strong track record coaching a dynamic, attacking defense and Buffalo’s new general manager has already taken steps towards adding mobility and skill to the unit.
We still have a few more months to see how everything comes together but both Botterill and his first major hire appear to be exactly what Sabres fans were hoping for.