BUFFALO – In good times or bad, on or off the ice, Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis could always turn to Sabres coach Phil Housley.
“He was always kind of there,” Ellis said prior to Monday’s 4-0 win against the Sabres, Housley’s first meeting against his old team. “He was like the calming influence.”
Ellis, 27, morphed into one of the NHL’s highest-scoring defensemen over Housley’s four years as an assistant coach in Nashville. Of course, the Hall of Fame defenseman’s expertise on the ice also helped Ellis develop.
But to Ellis, Housley was more than just a coach.
“He was more of almost a friend than a coach,” said Ellis, who scored a career-high 16 goals last season. “That goes a long way with the length of the season and every year, year in and year out.”
Housley’s everyman demeanor impressed Ellis. One of hockey’s all-time greats carried himself like he played 10 NHL games. That helped him connect with players.
“He’s one of the best ever to play on the blue line, so many stats, so many accolades he’s had over his long career,” Ellis said inside KeyBank Center. “He comes into the room and he just wants to be kind of another one of the guys. Whether it’s on or off the ice, he’s always there, a shoulder to kind of lean on, talk to and he was tremendous for all of us involved.”
The Sabres have struggled mightily in Housley’s first year as coach, winning just 23 of their first 71 games. Right now, they rank 30th overall with only 58 points.
Still, Ellis and Predators coach Peter Laviolette believe Housley will eventually be successful with the Sabres.
“Every opportunity he’s gotten he’s made the most of,” Laviolette said. “I think it’s just a matter of time here. I think he’s got a really good understanding of the game. I think he communicates really well with players. I think those are two really important assets to have as a coach is to understand what you’re doing and be able to communicate that to the players.”
Ellis said: “Just knowing him personally, I think he’ll be able to right the ship.”
Ten years ago Sunday – March 18, 2008 – Sabres winger Kyle Okposo made his NHL debut, skating in the New York Islanders’ 3-1 home loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Okposo was a 19-year-old who had just left the University of Minnesota during his sophomore season to pursue his NHL dream.
“(I remember) Bill Guerin saying, ‘You only play your first one once, kid, so enjoy it,’” said Okposo, who returned from a concussion Monday after missing three games. “That was kind of my welcome to the NHL moment.”
Okposo left school and reported to the Islanders’ AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
“I kind of had an inkling that they were going to call me up for the last nine games,” Okposo said. “It was really special. I left school halfway through the year, tough decision, but I was really close to realizing my dream.”
In Okposo’s debut, teammate Rob Davison scored an infamous 197-foot goal, bouncing the puck past Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala from his own zone.
“Penalty kill, just a bouncer on Vesa Toskala,” Okposo said. “That was that game. For me, I was just so nervous. It was a pretty uneventful game for me personally.”
Three days later in New Jersey, Okposo scored the first of his 169 NHL goals.
Former Sabres coach Ted Nolan was leading the Islanders then.
Sabres defenseman Casey Nelson, who missed Saturday afternoon’s 5-3 win against the Chicago Blackhawks with a lower-body injury, returned Monday.
To make make room for Nelson, rookie Victor Antipin was scratched.
The Sabres made one paper transaction prior to the game, recalling winger Justin Bailey. They sent the youngster to the Rochester Americans on Sunday so he could “serve” his one-game AHL suspension.
Housley also said goalie Robin Lehner is sidelined for maintenance. Lehner skated briefly Sunday and Monday before leaving the ice.
Meanwhile, Sabres winger Zemgus Girgensons missed his first game with an undisclosed injury.