It's all systems go as Housley emphasizes aggressiveness for Sabres - The Buffalo News

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It's all systems go as Housley emphasizes aggressiveness for Sabres

Phil Housley's system has one essential tenet.

No standing anytime.

The new coach is transforming the Sabres into an aggressive team, one that features active defensemen and quick-thinking forwards. Some parts of the system – blue-liners leading the rush or firing away from the point – will be obvious. Other things – defenders tightening their gaps and stepping up at the blue line – will be more nuanced.

Nearly everything will revolve around skating.

Here are things to watch as Housley brings a new style of play to Buffalo:

Offensive defensemen

Aside from Rasmus Ristolainen, who was 15th among NHL defensemen in points, the Sabres' blue-liners were offensive afterthoughts. Jake McCabe ranked 79th. Cody Franson was 85th. No one else was in the top 150.

That's expected to change. Housley has given everyone the green light to join the rush. It worked in Nashville, where Housley was an assistant coach.

Predators defensemen scored 45 goals last season. Sabres defensemen had 17. The Nashville blue-liners took 819 shots. Sabres defensemen had 594.

The Buffalo blue-liners will be required to start plays with effective passes from their own end and finish them by speeding up ice to join the offense.

Defensive forwards

On a preseason goal scored by defenseman Victor Antipin, he and blue-line mate Taylor Fedun were both part of the rush. That meant someone had to cover the back end in case something went wrong.

Cue Ryan O'Reilly. The center pulled up at the red line, staying behind two Pittsburgh forwards. The Sabres' centers and wingers will have to be cognizant of who's in the rush and whether they should join it, too.

Loafing isn't allowed on the back check. The Sabres gave up too many odd-man chances last season. This year, one forward will be near the top of the offensive zone. He'll be in position to turn quickly and help in pursuit, reducing the two-on-ones or three-on-twos.

Tighter gaps

The Sabres backed off opponents last season. Then they backed off some more. The result was too much time in the defensive zone.

This season, the forwards are expected to be aggressive in the neutral zone. They will quickly close on their opponents, forcing them to make decisions earlier than they'd hoped. It should result in more turnovers.

The Sabres also will make it tougher for teams to enter their zone. It was rare for defensemen to step up at the blue line and impede a player's progress. Now the blue-liners are expected to move forward instead of backward. They'll slow the opponents and force them to dump and chase rather than carry into the zone and set up plays.

Don't rely only on X's and O's

The Sabres spent too much time last year thinking about where they should stand instead of skating to where the puck could go.

At its core, hockey is an instinctual game. Players need to react to funny bounces, broken sticks and referees who are unable to get out of the way. Housley wants his skaters moving at all times, which would give them more opportunities to find the puck when it hops unexpectedly. The coach will give his players a general idea of where to be, but he'll leave it up to them to react accordingly.

It's how the Sabres wanted to play last year. Now they have to show they can do it.

"For us, the guys playing, it's more than just the system," O'Reilly said. "It's got to be feet first and let instincts take over."

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