It was one year ago Friday that the Buffalo Sabres introduced Phil Housley as the 18th head coach in franchise history. Housley had been an assistant with the Nashville Predators for the previous four seasons and his hiring came just four days after the Preds lost the decisive Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"He's one of the best defensemen ever to play. He commands your respect right away," Nashville blueliner P.K. Subban said during the '17 Cup final. "When you have a guy like that to come back to the bench to, you want to soak in everything. I just want to be a sponge to take in everything he says and does.
"You watch him practice, and he's still got a little bit. You can still learn something from how he plays. He's really smart and the information he gives to us as to how to manage our game is great."
From the promises of a five-man, uptempo approach, however, came the stark reality of a first-year head coach who simply did not have enough weapons in his arsenal. Housley's first year behind the bench did not go well, as the Sabres staggered to a 62-point season and a last-place finish in the NHL's overall standing.
But there remains massive hope for the future, largely from the expected additions of Casey Mittelstadt and Brendan Guhle to the roster on a full-time basis and next week's drafting of Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 overall pick.
Here's a look back at some key moments in Housley's first 12 months as the Sabres' bench boss:
The first game: The Sabres lost their opener under Housley, 3-2, in an Oct. 5 shootout to Montreal but it gave a glimpse of what they could be in a game that saw them outshoot the Habs, 45-40. But it was only a glimpse not seen much the rest of the way as it was the most shots on goal they would get in any game the entire season. Housley also raised some eyebrows by not using Jack Eichel in the shootout the day after Eichel signed his eight-year, $80-million contract extension.
The first win: After opening 0-4-1 and scoring just 11 goals in the five games, Housley got his first win as the Sabres squeezed out a 3-1 victory Oct. 15 in Anaheim.
"It feels great but I have to tip my hat to the guys in that locker room," Housley said. "The guys really gutted it out to get a win tonight. ... it's three in four nights and there's a lot of different directions they could have turned. They gutted it out, stayed the course and I'm just really proud of them."
"You know it's Phil's first win as a head coach," said goalie Chad Johnson, who also earned his first win of the season but wouldn't get another until January. "It's pretty special to know later on in your career you were a part of that. I'm sure he'll have a lot more wins as a head coach. To know you were part of the first is pretty special."
The first month: The Sabres went 3-7-2 in October and their playoff chances were cooked early in the season.
"I see a team that at key times in the game, we sort of break," Housley said. "We have to have a mental toughness in that area where we can't crack and that's part of the culture too, building that reassurance. Just continue to play the way we're playing. We don't have to do anything out of the ordinary."
Postgame blues: Housley was overtly positive with his public remarks about his team through its early struggles but his patience clearly waned after a 3-1 loss to Detroit on Nov. 17 during the club's first trip to Little Caesars Arena.
"We've got to be smarter," Housley said. "We just got outbattled, outworked and outcompeted tonight. At times we even looked slow and I don't know why that is. We played one game in six nights. It's disappointing."
Blanking blues: Housley is the highest-scoring defensemen in Sabres history and in the top 10 all-time in the NHL so it was hard for him to fathom what the Sabres endured from Nov. 25-Dec. 1: The first back-to-back-to-back shutouts in franchise history.
"Guys in that room have to make a choice to turn it around," Housley said after a 4-0 loss to Pittsburgh dropped the team to 1-8-2 in an 11-game stretch. "It's not going to be easy. This is going to be one of the mentally tough things they'll have to deal with in their careers. Hopefully we'll look back at this stretch and learn from it."
Dustups with stars: With five goals in the first 20 games, a minus-9 rating and a loafing backcheck on a 2-on-1 break that resulted in a Carolina goal, Jack Eichel got spotted between Zemgus Girgensons and Jason Pominville by Housley for a November game against Columbus. The coach also took away plenty of Rasmus Ristolainen's top-pair minutes during a February loss to Colorado.
"I think you saw the game. I think there's some passengers tonight that weren't prepared to play the game," Housley said after the latter affair, without mentioning Ristolainen by name. "I don't think the game was going his way so I just decided to mix up the pairs."
Players appreciated that Housley limited his negative comments to the media, but many acknowledged the coach had far more of a needed acid tongue in private behind the locker room doors.
Low points: The Sabres were 6-17-4 after a 5-1 loss Dec. 2 in Pittsburgh, fell to 10-20-9 with their overtime loss to the New York Rangers in the Winter Classic Jan. 1 in Citi Field and hit the halfway mark of the schedule 10-22-9 with a 4-3 loss Jan. 5 in Winnipeg.
Improvements: The Sabres went 13-12-3 over one 28-game stretch of the second half, including a sweep of their three-game Western Canada road trip for the first time since 1998. For the season, they posted seven wins over Atlantic Division playoff teams Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto, lost an overtime and shootout decision to Western Conference champion Vegas and posted Housley's biggest win of the season when the coach returned to Nashville and Buffalo roared past the Predators, 7-4, on the final day of March.
The power play, which was the best in the NHL in 2016-17, crumbled to 30th in the league over the first half of the season as players struggled at times with Housley's schemes. Housley and associate coach Davis Payne reworked it with more net-front presence and and capitalized on Sam Reinhart's major second-half jump in play, as the Buffalo man-advantage group was sixth in the league in the second half – going from 11.9 percent to 25.9
Looking to the future: Housley promises a tougher training camp come September, with more focus on conditioning that he felt was lacking this year. He should have more young talent at his disposal as well. Dahlin is the kind of player who can immediately take to Housley's style of up-tempo play from the back end, and the coach admitted to high-fiving his family in his Minnesota home as he watched the Sabres win the draft lottery,
"Just seeing his poise and his hockey IQ of processing the game at a high speed is really, really something," Housley said of Dahlin in a May interview with The Buffalo News. "I've been watching on YouTube and, boy, it's incredible. He's going to be a complete package in today's NHL."