BUFFALO – Barely two years ago, Phil Housley was the NHL’s hottest assistant before the Sabres hired him as the 18th head coach in franchise history following the Nashville Predators’ run to the Stanley Cup final.
The move was almost universally lauded. Housley, a Hall of Fame defenseman and one of the greatest Sabres ever, was returning to a team and city close to his heart.
Housley’s defense corps in Nashville showcased the fast, aggressive style needed to succeed in the modern NHL.
It seemed like a terrific fit.
Fast forward to today, and Housley has won only 37 percent of his games (55-73-20) with the Sabres.
After finishing dead last a season ago, the Sabres rattled off 10 straight victories in November and ranked first overall late in the month before skidding off the rails.
Since their streak ended, the Sabres are 13-22-6 and have earned only 32 points, the NHL’s third-lowest total since Nov. 29.
They’ve lost six straight road games (0-5-1) are 3-13-3 in their last 20 outings away from KeyBank Center entering tonight’s road game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The growing frustrations over the Sabres’ likely eighth straight playoff DNQ – they have just a 0.6 percent chance of making it, according to sportsclubstats.com – have led to cries for Housley to be replaced.
Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said last month Housley’s job is safe. It probably should be, too.
After burning through four coaches in a little more than four years, the Sabres need to commit to someone. While they possess some terrific talent and have showcased improvements at times, the roster simply isn’t good enough.
That falls on Botterill, not Housley.
The deal has paid virtually zero dividends.
Berglund quit the Sabres in December. Sobotka has scored once since Nov. 8. Because of the lack of depth, Housley has to overuse the Czech. Thompson has scored once in his last 20 games and is skating on the fourth line. More development time in the AHL probably would’ve benefited him.
Meanwhile, O’Reilly, one of the league’s most versatile centers, has compiled 25 goals and 63 points in his first 65 games with the Blues. He was just selected for his second NHL All-Star Game and could be a favorite to win the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward.
Imagine if Housley could still utilize O’Reilly’s talents 20 minutes a night.
Following Monday’s 4-3 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, the Sabres’ eighth setback in 10 games, winger Jason Pominville said the players need to accept blame for the team’s struggles, something he repeated Wednesday.
“It’s not anyone else,” Pominville said. “We’re the ones that go out there and play. We can’t search for excuses. We just got to be better.”
Housley’s a hockey lifer who played 21 NHL seasons and paid plenty of dues before earning the Buffalo job. He didn’t suddenly forget how to coach.
Clearly, Housley’s message has gotten through at times. Their torrid start was the team’s high-water mark of the last eight years.
“His first year was trying to get a feel for what was here and the personnel,” Pominville said. “This year, I think he was able to come in and from the get-go get the type of team that we wanted to be, the culture that we needed to change, the things that we needed to do different.
“Although our record hasn’t shown it, I think we’ve done a lot of good things off the ice, our culture’s changing, he’s helped us in a lot of situations on the ice.”
His players peg Housley as a hybrid-type coach, meaning he stresses Xs and Os yet still keeps clear lines of communication.
“He’s a little bit of both,” Pominville said. “He’s not a guy that’s always negative. I think he’s a guy that’s pretty upbeat, pretty positive. If he has something for you, he’ll come right to you and talk to you about it, respectful in that sense to everyone.
“As far as Xs and Os, he’s definitely prepared and has a plan. He gives us all the info that we need, that’s for sure. Him and his staff have done a good job.”
Sabres winger Kyle Okposo said Housley is “approachable” and “direct.”
“A really big approach as a coach is (you) got to be direct and believe in yourself, your authority,” Housley said. “You got make sure the players know exactly where they stand.”
So what has changed in Housley’s nearly two seasons leading the Sabres?
“He really stresses the details of the game, especially on the defensive side of the puck,” Okposo said. “As a young team, I really think that you need that. I think we’re learning in that aspect how to play better defensively.
“If you were to say one thing (that has changed) … it would be the defensive side of the game.”
Housley has also fostered a better team atmosphere and more appreciation for being a Sabre and a member of the community.
The Sabres huddle at the end of every practice. Pictures commemorating team gatherings and accomplishments hang on the wall as you enter the dressing room. Inside, photos of significant Sabres from the team’s history hang above the lockers. There’s also a giant buffalo head.
“He really cares about Buffalo and the organization,” Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian said. “Obviously, with his past being here and playing here. I just think he tries to pass along his passion of being a Sabre to his guys here in the room.”