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Housley vows to get second season behind Sabres' bench off to better start

There's nothing Phil Housley can do about his first season on the Buffalo Sabres' bench. The ice is gone and the bags are packed.

When they're unpacked this fall, Housley wants the players to be ready.

"It's going to be a hard training camp," the coach said Monday. "We're going to get right to work, and it's going to be a tough camp."

Housley's opening training camp featured a multifaceted approach. He had to introduce himself after arriving from Nashville. He had to implement a system. He needed to preach structure.

"I think that took away a little bit from the conditioning part, then we had to address that part early in October," Housley said, "the compete, battle, just the standard overall in our practices. Looking back at that, we won't have to do that again.

"Implementing these systems and philosophy and structure, that takes time. We don't have to go through that. We know how we want to play as a team, and I think we have to be ready to go. I think our start is going to be crucial for our season next year, and that starts in training camp."

The Sabres opened Housley's first year with an 0-4-1 record that rolled downhill to 6-17-4 and 11-26-9. They finished an NHL-worst 25-45-12.

"I never expected this," Housley said in KeyBank Center. "It was a difficult season in that respect. I'm not used to having the results that we had. That was an adjustment of keep trying to push our players, keep motivating our guys, keep them together because we could have easily broken apart.

"That's why when you look at this year, we're going to learn from it because we don't want to be in this position next year."

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As Housley met with players individually on locker-cleanout day, he stuck to a common theme.

"What are they willing to change?" the coach said. "That's the biggest question as we move forward. What are they going to personally invest in this summer to change?

"When I look after my first year, I think there's a lot of good pieces in that locker room. But I think it's very evident to me that our checking detail has to get better. I think the players in there realize that, being able to listen and be coachable in that respect. That's what I think is going to be a big difference for us next year."

This year, the Sabres were a mess offensively and defensively. They scored the fewest goals and allowed the third most. Their longest winning streak was three games. They ranked 30th with a .324 winning percentage in one-goal games.

"At critical times in the game, we were the ones to crack," Housley said. "We didn't stay the course. We weren't comfortable in that situation. We have to be more comfortable in those situations where it's a tight game and rely on our checking and our defense to overcome that adversity."

Housley provided a framework to overcome the adversity. The Sabres didn't buy in.

"I don't think it's about coaching here," defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said. "I feel he's a good coach. A lot of times, we've just got to do what he says."

Center Jack Eichel says there were times the players didn't give Housley the respect he deserves.

"You're playing for one of the best players who's ever played the game, and there's a lot we can learn from him," Eichel said. "Sometimes I think we take it for granted how well-respected and how much he knows about the game. I think we can continue to learn from him as he's going to continue to learn from us."

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Housley wasn't perfect. He and General Manager Jason Botterill will evaluate where Housley could have been better in the coming weeks.

"There's a lot of things you want to do differently when you're in this position," Housley said. "I thought the communication was really good between our players and our coaching staff. I thought our preparation was very, very solid. That's a question that I have to reflect on because I have to be better as well."

Housley and Botterill will also evaluate the coaching staff of associate Davis Payne and assistants Chris Hajt and Tom Ward.

"I don't expect any changes, but that's my answer for right now," Housley said. "Certainly, when you're in this position, things change."

The changes will be noticeable in training camp in September.

"You can talk about the results that we had this year, but our playoffs start on the first day of training camp," Housley said. "I don't want to be in this position next year saying the same thing."

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