Phil Housley likes Marco Scandella’s talents. ©2017, Hickling Images, Olean Times Herald

Sabres’ Phil Housley likes defense, plans to lean on Marco Scandella

BUFFALO – In a two-week span last month, general manager Jason Botterill addressed the Sabres’ most glaring weakness by acquiring defensemen Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella.

Is either player elite? Hardly. Still, as puck-moving defenders, Beaulieu and Scandella offer talents the Sabres sorely lacked last season and add some much-needed depth.

Sabres coach Phil Housley knows Scandella well, having coached against the former Minnesota Wild defenseman the last four years as an assistant with the Nashville Predators.

If Housley’s comments Tuesday are any indication, he plans to lean heavily on Scandella.

“He’s a terrific player,” Housley inside HarborCenter following the close of development camp. “He was a key element in adding to our team.”

The Sabres can give Scandella, someone Housley called “a fierce competitor,” the bigger role he wanted with the Wild.

“He was playing behind some guys,” Housley said. “I think he wanted more minutes, he wanted more opportunity, and luckily for us, we got him. … He can skate and he’s mobile. A big part of our team is the mobility back there.”

Scandella, 27, averaged 18 minutes, 20 seconds of ice time a game last season. The seven-year veteran will almost certainly skate in the top four and play special teams with the Sabres, meaning his minutes should surpass the 20-minute mark.

Botterill also signed Victor Antipin, a KHL defenseman former GM Tim Murray technically secured before he was fired.

So is Housley satisfied with his revamped blue line?

“It’s a great start, definitely adding (Beaulieu and Scandella), and with the depth we have back there, it’s important we have the depth,” he said. “Knock on wood we don’t have those injuries, because in an 82-game schedule you’re going to have those injuries. I really like the depth where we are right now.”

Housley still needs to add an assistant coach in charge of the defense to his staff. He hired former St. Louis Blues head coach Davis Payne as his associate coach last Wednesday and also retained goalie coach Andrew Allen, a holdover from former coach Dan Bylsma’s staff.

“(I’m) trying to do a thorough search for really good candidates, and there’s a lot of good coaches out there,” Housley said. “You want to make sure you do the right thing and look at everybody.”

Housley has already hit it off with Payne, who spent the last five years as an assistant with the Los Angeles Kings, winning the Stanley Cup in 2014.

“Right away, I think that we’ve had a unique chemistry,” Housley said.

Housley said “it helps” Payne led an NHL team earlier in his career. Payne’s resume, he said, “speaks for itself.”

“(He has a) presence in the locker room,” Housley said. “I think if you know him, he’s a great human, he’s got a great family. He brings a lot to the table, which I really enjoy, just having his company this week, getting to know him better.”

Housley said he kept Allen because “he just impressed me when I talked to him.”

“Very personable guy,” he said. “He understands the game from a goaltender’s point of view and has a good relationship with all our goalies, so it was important that we had a guy that had those relationships.”

Botterill said the Sabres have enough contract space and salary cap room to add more players if they want.

“You always want to add,” he said.

Right now, Botterill said the trade market “is fairly quiet.”

“You still are engaged with some conversations with GMs,” he said. “But it is a situation where it is a little bit quieter there. We have a couple guys that we want to get under contract here in the next couple weeks. My guess is things will probably heat up come the fall.”

Botterill said the Sabres are still looking at free agents.

“It’s a discussion is there still someone out there you want to add right now or is it better to keep a spot open to see something materialize from a trade standpoint closer to the start of the season?” he said.

Botterill seems optimistic the Sabres will sign starting goalie Robin Lehner, a restricted free agent, before his contract goes to arbitration.

“I don’t see any reason why something can’t be done,” he said.

The Sabres deal with Lehner’s agent, Craig Oster, for other contracts, Botterill said.

“We have very good communication with Craig,” he said.

The Sabres closed development camp with the three-on-three French Connection tournament before more than 1,000 fans. Eighth overall pick Casey Mittelstadt starred for Team White, scoring twice in the championship game.

“He’s one of the better players I’ve ever seen play,” Sabres prospect Rasmus Asplund said.

Botterill learned a lot about Mittelstadt, 18, a talented center set to attend the University of Minnesota.

“We knew he was great person off the ice,” Botterill said. “There was things he had to work on – upper-body strength. What we were excited about, we saw a lot of lower-body strength with some of our off-ice testing, just his interaction with our staff on ideas to improve his game.”

Botterill said defense prospect Devante Stephens, who hurt his shoulder Monday, won’t need surgery and should be ready for training camp.

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