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Phil Housley returns to Buffalo, reflects on lessons learned from coaching Sabres

When the Arizona Coyotes took a lap around the KeyBank Center ice at the sound of Rick Tocchet's whistle Sunday morning, Phil Housley jokingly began to chase defenseman Jason Demers.

Housley, grinning while wearing a Coyotes track suit, slowed his pursuit and circled back to run players through their next drill. The 55-year-old Hall-of-Fame defenseman appeared to be in his element, instructing the Coyotes' power play while standing at center ice, the same spot he orchestrated practices for two years as the Buffalo Sabres' coach.

This isn't Housley's first time using the visitors' locker room or bench in Buffalo. He will stand behind the latter when he faces his former team Monday night. However, Housley returned this time under far different circumstances. His replacement, Ralph Krueger, has the Sabres (9-2-1) tied for the league lead with 19 points.

Housley's former team's success hasn't caused him to reflect on what went wrong last season, though.

Those thoughts raced through his mind in the weeks and months following his firing last April. And while Housley explained, in hindsight, there are a number of changes he should have made as the Sabres' coach last season, he doesn't have any interest in expressing those thoughts publicly. Instead, Housley wishes his former players well, plans to learn from his two seasons as coach in Buffalo and remains focused on his new position as an assistant under Tocchet in Arizona.

"It’s just one of those things, it’s part of the business," Housley said. "I understand that. In hindsight there are a lot of things you probably could have changed, but that’s the part of being a first-time head coach and you learn from that. I think if you asked any coach that has been relieved they’d have a lot of thoughts – what could they have done differently. But that’s in the past now and I’m looking forward right now to coaching in Arizona."

Housley, who was drafted sixth overall by the Sabres in 1982 and played eight seasons for the organization, added that it's "great" to return to Buffalo. He's enjoyed learning under Tocchet, a former teammate with the Washington Capitals, and establishing relationships with a promising defense corps that includes Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

The wounds from last season run deep, though. Housley guided the Sabres to a 10-game win streak last November and first place in National Hockey League. He was touted as a potential candidate for the Jack Adams Award and served as a mentor for Rasmus Dahlin. His young roster, which lacked depth and struggled to rebound from injuries to the blue line, went 16-33-8 following the win streak to miss the playoffs for an eighth consecutive season.

Housley was dismissed following a 7-1 win over Detroit in the season finale. He wasn't sure if another team would call with a job offer. Housley considered taking a year off or placing phone calls to gauge interest. Meanwhile, Tocchet was trying to find someone to coach the Coyotes' defense and power play. In addition to his relationship with Housley, Tocchet spoke with Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill, whom he worked with during their time in Pittsburgh.

Housley's hiring was announced by Arizona shortly after the NHL draft in June, giving him plenty of time to reflect on his time in Buffalo, which included a 58-84-22 record over two seasons. So, what would he change about last season?

"Those are things I’ll just keep to myself," Housley said. "There’s no use. It’s not going to benefit me right now to explain myself. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s game and trying to finish this road trip off the right way."

The Sabres had a negative-47 goal differential last season, as they struggled to prevent high-danger scoring chances. Under Krueger, Buffalo already has three shutouts – including two by Carter Hutton in consecutive starts – and a plus-11 goal differential through 13 games. Players who struggled under Housley – most notably, Marco Scandella and Vladimir Sobotka – have provided consistent production, particularly without the puck.

Sabres players have spoken repeatedly about Krueger's system allowing them to use their creativity and skill with the puck. They can rely on their instincts, as opposed to feeling robotic on the ice, particularly in the defensive zone. Rasmus Ristolainen described the Sabres' defensive play as being "on the same page," compared to last season. Botterill also told the media that Krueger's "clear message" has resonated with the players.

Housley when asked about a possible disconnect with the players: "I have no comment on that."

"He obviously has a special mind for the game," Kyle Okposo said of Housley following practice Sunday. "Any defenseman that has over 1,000 points knew how to play the game. He saw the game in a unique way as a very elite player in the league and you kind of take bits of pieces of that, how he saw the game, and the interactions we had. You learn from every coach you have. You never stop learning, no matter how old you are."

Entering play Sunday, the Coyotes had allowed the second-fewest goals in the NHL, despite losing defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to injury. Additionally, their power play – which is Housley's specialty – ranked 15th in the league. Arizona is 6-3-1 with a plus-9 goal differential. Tocchet called his defensemen "the heartbeat of our team" and said Housley can coax more out of the group.

Even Tocchet was surprised when he noticed how much time and effort Housley puts into preparing for each game. However, game plans are meaningless without earning the trust of players. Housley began calling Coyotes defensemen shortly after he was hired and has already made an impact on young players such as Jakob Chychrun, a 21-year-old amid his fourth NHL season.

"Howie’s great," Chychrun said. "He’s definitely a guy who was a heck of a player in this league and a very good offensive player, so it’s nice to just have good conversations with him and try to continue to grow my game offensively and from the power play. He’s been great. It’s still early in the year and we’re still working on a lot of things, but I think he’s going to be great throughout the season."

Ekman-Larsson added: "Obviously it’s a little bit different than last year with some stuff that you need to get used to. ... Obviously we know he was a good player and played a lot of games, so he knows what he’s talking about. It’s been great so far."

Housley also views his position in Arizona as a valuable learning experience. The Coyotes have emerged as a contender since Tocchet became coach in 2017-18. The two talk routinely about how to approach different situations during games and what the day-to-day message should be. Housley has been particularly impressed with Tocchet's ability to relate to players and manage different personalities.

Though Housley wishes to not dwell on how his time as Sabres coach ended, he learned several lessons that will remain with him, including managing people, building relationships, making decisions and delivering a message every day. He wishes his former team well and will carry their shared experiences with him in Arizona.

"It’s great," Housley said of his return. "Obviously, they’re playing very good hockey right now and it’s good to see them having success. I have nothing but good things to say about Buffalo. But I’m happy to be with Arizona, coaching with Rick and John MacLean and Corey Schwab – all guys I played with. So it was an easy transition for me, a good group of players in there and they’re finding ways to win."

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