BUFFALO – Having spent the first eight seasons of his Hall of Fame playing career here, Phil Housley has a special appreciation for the city and the Sabres, the team he now coaches.
So Thursday morning, as a smiling Housley stood at a podium wearing a blue Sabres jacket talking about his team, the moment wasn’t lost on the rookie head coach.
“It just gives me chills, seeing the Sabre logo,” Housley said as training camp opened with physicals inside KeyBank Center. “I was fortunate to start my career here. It’s a great sports town. People are very passionate, very proud.”
The passion of the Sabres’ fan base hasn’t waned much over some lean, even awful seasons, but the team’s relevance has across the NHL.
The Sabres, of course, haven’t made the playoffs since 2011. In the dismal stretch, they’ve bottomed out, finishing dead last twice, and only truly contended for a postseason spot once, way back in 2012.
After a 27-point improvement two years ago, the Sabres regressed in 2016-17, falling to last place in the Atlantic Division.
“All the guys are pretty sick of losing and not playing in the playoffs, so know I’m not the only guy,” Sabres center Jack Eichel said. “I can speak for a lot of guys in the room. We got to be there at the end of the year.”
To Eichel, the playoffs are “the end all be all.”
“You got to be a playoff team,” he said. “It starts now. That’s the ultimate goal, you want to be there at the end of the year, you want to be playing in the postseason. I think this city, this team, this organization is pretty starved for it.”
In the same spot five months earlier, Eichel seethed as he offered only terse answers about another lost season. On Thursday, as you would expect at the start of a new campaign, he sounded upbeat.
The new regime – Housley and general manager Jason Botterill replaced coach Dan Bylsma and GM Tim Murray – has brought some much-needed optimism.
“Guys are just excited,” Eichel said. “It’s a fresh start. It’s an opportunity to hit the ground running.”
Housley added: “We’re hopefully going to bring a new chapter to the Buffalo Sabres organization.”
What happened last season, Housley said, is history.
“I just tend to move forward,” he said. “Whatever happened last year, we’re coming in with a clean slate, a fresh start for these players. I think they’re going to like that, things that we’re going to do and implement on our team and our system play, it’s going to be fresh.”
By the end of last season, almost everything felt stale. Some of the Sabres’ woes, winger Kyle Okposo said, can be traced to accountability, something goalie Robin Lehner often spoke passionately about following losses.
“I don’t think think we always played the game in the right way to … give ourselves the most success,” Okposo said. “There was times I know we all thought in the room we could be better.”
Okposo said the Sabres must mature and become more disciplined.
“We have a lot of young players, but they have the ability to play older, to play a more mature game,” he said. “I think that was just lacking a little bit from everybody (last season), myself too. I think we can all be better. We can cut that learning curve down significantly if everybody buys in and we have some maturity to our game.”
The Sabres reloaded during the offseason, overhauling the blue line and adding three defensemen – Victor Antipin, Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella – capable of moving the puck.
Those new faces should help Housley, a speedy defenseman for 21 seasons, showcase a slick five-man attack. Part of Bylsma’s downfall was the slow style he utilized.
“We want to be an aggressive team,” Housley said. “We’ve talked about playing aggressive offensively, but we need to play aggressive defensively. Defense gives you a chance to play every night. They all understand we want to be fast and aggressive.”
A new style and some familiarity should boost the Sabres. Most of the current team is beginning its third season together.
“When we all started coming together two years ago, I think it was just more of the unfamiliarity between players,” Eichel said. “Now that we’ve been together for two years, we know each other pretty well, you put a new coach in place who has obviously the experience he has, we should be able to hit the ground running.”