Quietly competent Phil Housley ready to turn Buffalo Sabres around

Phil Housley faces a big challenge in his first head-coaching gig. AP Photo/John Wawrow

Phil Housley is pretty sure that his old Buffalo house is in good hands.

In 2011, while an assistant coach for Team USA in the World Junior Championship in Buffalo, Housley and his family took a quick trip to the suburb of East Amherst to see the house he that and his wife, Karin, had built when he played for the Sabres in the 1980s.

"It's the same house," Housley told ESPN.com. "It was a great little neighborhood and had four little cul de sacs, so it had a dead end and it was very peaceful."

When he last lived in Buffalo, Housley was a young star defenseman on a good but not great team that played in a hockey-mad city craving a big-time contender. He played his first 608 career games and scored his first 558 points for the Sabres.

In his second stint in the Queen City, he's a 53-year-old empty-nester living in a two-bedroom condo downtown. And he's now the Sabres' newest head coach and wants to finally give Buffalo a taste of success after missing the playoffs six straight years -- to stop the Sabres from becoming the equivalent to a hockey dead end.

"These people are very enthusiastic and they're just waiting for one of the [pro] teams to take the next step," said Housley, a Hockey Hall of Famer who is the fourth-leading career scorer among NHL defensemen. "So they're hungry for a winner, and that is really important to me that we put a good product on the ice that the fans will want to come and see."

As an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators from 2013-14 through the team's Stanley Cup finals run last season, Housley's ability to get through to his young defense proved his greatest strength. When Housley arrived with the Predators, blueliners Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis needed someone with a deft touch to help them take the next step. Rookie Seth Jones needed a guiding hand to help him figure out how to handle the NHL.

Ellis, a 2009 first-round pick, had six points in 32 games the previous season while averaging 16:23 of ice time per game. Ekholm had mostly played in Sweden and then the AHL after a disastrous debut in 2011-12. Jones was considered a future cornerstone blueliner but was still raw.

Fast forward to last season, when Ekholm averaged 23:28 of ice time per game while posting positive 5-on-5 possession numbers and Ellis averaged 23:57 per game while blasting 16 goals. Jones had became an All-Star with the Columbus Blue Jackets after a January 2016 trade, and he attributes a lot of his early progress to working with Housley.

"Phil I definitely think taught us a lot," Jones said. "I think in games he doesn't say too much behind the bench, but I think when he does say something, it means he sees something, and you want to listen to him because a lot of those guys in Nashville -- we wanted to be offensive defensemen -- and he was one of the best at being an offensive defenseman."

Housley's ability to connect with players was on display immediately after the Sabres hired him on June 15. He started calling guys at 9 a.m. that day and basically didn't let up until he reached a good chunk of his players by late in the day.

One of those players he chatted with was, of course, Jack Eichel, the team's 20-year-old star center who started last season sidelined with an ankle injury and finished it amid rumors that he wouldn't re-sign with Buffalo during the offseason if the Sabres didn't fire coach Dan Bylsma. Eichel shot down the rumors, but the Sabres then fired Bylsma and general manager Tim Murray. Eichel currently remains unsigned past this season, although he has publicly said he doesn't want to play elsewhere.

The goal, according to Housley, is to make Eichel feel comfortable while being a superstar in a hockey fishbowl such as Buffalo. Housley knows what it's like from experience as a high-drafted (sixth overall) teenager who made the Sabres in 1982-83.

"I think there's so much demand on him, we're going to try to protect him in that way so he can just focus on playing the game, coming to the rink and enjoying coming to the rink," Housley said. "Everybody has a clean slate, including him, to just make a good impression and do the right things and enjoy himself, and I think that will relay into success for him."

"I've spoken with him a few times on the phone, and I just met him," Eichel told ESPN.com during media access in New York on Sept. 6. "He seems like a really down-to-earth guy. He can have a conversation with you that doesn't involve hockey. As players, you appreciate that. When he got the job he called me and we had a good conversation. He told me the way he wants to play this year, what his expectations are."

Housley said he mostly tries to ignore the talk around Eichel's contract. All he wants is for Eichel to be happy and producing. Last season Eichel, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, had 57 points in 61 games, which led the Sabres.

"That's why he pays his agent and that's why [general manager] Jason [Botterill] speaks to his agent," Housley said. "I just want him to come to the rink and forget about that, take that off his plate. Even though everybody knows negotiations are going on, but let's focus on our team and let's focus on getting better every day."

Although Eichel commands the spotlight in Buffalo, Housley needs to figure out how to get more from a group that finished 26th last season with 78 points -- and has settled into a period of malaise after essentially tanking to snag Eichel in the draft.

Housley said he wants to create a system that allows his team to use its speed as one unit where players can attack, knowing their teammates will cover for them. The hope is that this should accentuate the talents of other top Sabres Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen.

The team still has somewhat of a talent deficit compared to other organizations, but gains are certainly possible with a buy-in.

"We want to play a fast game," Housley said. "I know a lot of coaches talk about it and I get that, but we want to be fast and not only offensively but also closing defensively."

Housley will try to do all this while dealing with his own learning curve. He has never been an NHL head coach and his highest-profile position as coach came at the helm of the gold medal-winning United States World Junior team in 2013.

Those who have seen him in action believe he should be able to make the transition, but he still needs to show progress with the Sabres to prove he was the right choice.

"Can you go from being ... an excellent assistant coach to being the head coach now? That'll be the question," said former Predators assistant coach and radio analyst Brent Peterson. "We'll just have to wait and see."