Why Phil Housley should be Buffalo Sabres’ next coach

The good news for the Buffalo Sabres in their coaching search is that there isn’t necessarily a bad choice among the three reported prime candidates.

Rick Tocchet, the Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach, has NHL head coaching experience, is praised for his work as a teacher and motivator, and has experience working with new general manager Jason Botterill with the two-time Stanley Cup champion Penguins.

Phil Housley, the Nashville Predators assistant coach, is a former Sabres player and a Hockey Hall of Famer who has earned respect for his work with the team’s defense. He’s a “one of the guys” coach who is known to have more fun in practice than many of his players. But he’s never been an NHL head coach.

Todd Reirden, the Washington Capitals assistant coach, shares attributes with the other candidates: Defensive coach and power-play specialist like Housley, former Penguins assistant like Tocchet. He’s a future head coach in this league, for sure.

So where should the Sabres turn?

We’re saying Housley. Even though odds are it’s Tocchet.

Let’s start with Tocchet. He’s coming off two consecutive Stanley Cup championships with the Penguins, coaching under Mike Sullivan. There’s something to be said for that. He has previous NHL head coaching experience, and there’s something to be said for that. His work with Phil Kessel with the Penguins has been widely praised within the organization, and Jack Eichel could use someone who can teach him and motivate him and inspire him like that – former NHL forward to current NHL forward.

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When Terry Pegula made his comments about changing the way the organization communicates and the character of it, it was obvious from his hiring of Botterill that the Penguins were a team he wanted to emulate. So Tocchet would continue that emulation.

So there are reasons to expect it will be Tocchet, which doesn’t mean it should be Tocchet.

Housley’s only been a head coach once: The IIHF World U20 Championship in 2013, where the U.S. won gold. So his lack of head coaching experience is a little scary, but nothing a seasoned coach as an assistant or associate couldn’t help remedy.

What Housley brings to the Sabres is a commitment to defense in the context of what defensemen should be doing in the NHL in 2017. And unless you have Sidney Crosby, usually you need a stout blueline to win in this league.

Watch the way the Predators played: Smart, mobile, offensively oriented, defensively sound. Yes, you need the horses to play that way, but you also need a coach that can stress the proper way to utilize those talents, and Housley brings that. And he’s shown an ability to imprint on younger defensemen, which is obviously going to the task at hand as Sabres coach with the likes of Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe and others on the way.

As Nashville radio analyst Chris Mason told us last season, “I just think defensemen want to play that style of play. If you have skill and you can skate, that’s the kind of hockey you really enjoy playing. It’s fun and he encourages that style of play so I think hand-in-hand with the way his experiences have gone and him having that credibility of being that type of player, I think it’s just a really relatable type of player with the defensemen.”

Let’s pause on that word: “fun.”

There’s always a danger in going back-to-back with players’ coaches. One gets the sense that Tocchet would have a firmer hand than did Dan Bylsma, while Housley would be more teacher than taskmaster.

That said, being around the Predators for the last few weeks reminds you that “fun” is important. You want a reason to come to the rink and practice hard. This isn’t to say that Housley is going to be handing out orange slices after morning skate, but there’s no question his attitude is infectious.

Then there’s the Sabres thing. He played eight years in Buffalo, and while Pegula’s slavish appreciation of bygone alumni has been sufficiently ridiculed at times, there’s something noble about a former great – drafted by the Sabres in 1982 – coming back home to lead the team to glory. Although, granted, nostalgia is a dangerous narcotic (see: Avalanche, Colorado).

Seriously, Terry, your team just did the Penguins thing at head coach. Try something new.

The typical trend in the NHL is for the guy running the defense to be the assistant coach. That’s the role Housley and Reirden and Jacques Martin and Scott Stevens and Larry Robinson and countless quality coaches have played. So hiring Housley as head coach bucks that trend a little bit.

But you know what? When you’re the Sabres, bucking trends and outside-the-box thinking is what you need. Botterill takes over a team having waited years for someone to give him a chance to prove his worth as a general manager. He should extend the same opportunity to Phil Housley as the next head coach of the Buffalo Sabres.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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