Buffalo Sabres Phil Housley Has Work Cut Out With Buffalo’s Defense

BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 24: Coach Phil Housley of the Buffalo Sabres watches the action during an NHL game against the Detroit Red Wings on October 24, 2017 at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo won, 1-0.(Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 24: Coach Phil Housley of the Buffalo Sabres watches the action during an NHL game against the Detroit Red Wings on October 24, 2017 at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo won, 1-0.(Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images) /
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The former Buffalo Sabres defenseman turned head coach certainly has a feeling he’s not in Nashville any more.

When Buffalo Sabres fans heard that Phil Housley would be the team’s head coach, there was much rejoicing.

After all, Housley helped the Nashville Predators develop one of the most mobile, offensively-minded blue lines in the NHL, resulting in a trip to the Stanley Cup Final last season. In addition, Housley enjoyed success at the international level, leading Team USA to the gold medal in the 2013 World Junior Championships.

And oh yeah: Housley is also a Hall of Famer who is currently the fourth-highest scoring defenseman in NHL history. When your head coach has 1,232 points on his resume, you expect him to create a defensive corps that can get the puck down ice and put points on the scoreboard.

Now realistically, no one expected the Buffalo Sabres blue line to resemble what the Predators currently have. Housley spent four seasons in Nashville developing players such as Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, and was lucky enough to add P.K. Subban in a trade with Montreal. His first year on the job was not going to turn Buffalo’s defenders into a unit that resembled one of the NHL’s best top-four.

Still, even the most cautious Sabres fan certainly thought that Housley would be able to help Rasmus Ristolainen establish himself as a 50+ points per year player, make the most of coveted KHL blue liner Viktor Antipin, maximize the offensive potential of Jake McCabe, and maybe even get Zach Bogosian back to looking something like the player who once score 30 points in Winnipeg.

Bogo has been injured, so he has a reason for not producing on the ice . . . but what about the rest of Buffalo’s under-performing defensive corps?  Antipin is barely being used, having topped 16 minutes of TOI only once in the eight games he has skated with the club. Considering the fact that Jason Botterill himself described Antipin as “the type of player that this organization needs to find a way to bring more in” when discussing the need to bring more puck-moving defensemen into the Sabres organization, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher to watch Housley continually favor offensively-challenged Matt Tennyson over Antipin night in and night out.

Again, though, Antipin has an excuse: the Sabres don’t seem to trust him enough to log top-four minutes. Which brings us to Ristolainen and McCabe, two defensemen who are certainly logging top-four minutes while producing at a bottom-four rate.

McCabe was never expected to be a 40 points per year kind of guy, but he did give a pretty terrible Sabres team 20 points in 76 games last year. That amounts to .26 PPG, and it was reasonable to think that Housley could squeeze a bit more offensive production out of him. Would .3 PPG be too much to ask for? Apparently so, as McCabe has just 2 points in his first 12 games this season, good for a “Just Barely Better Than Me” scoring rate of .17 PPG.

By far the biggest disappointment this season, however, is the play of Ristolainen. Risto averaged .57 PPG last season, and his 45 points ranked him 15 among all NHL defensemen. Surely Ristolainen would thrive under a coach who encourages his blue liners to skate the puck out of the zone, join the rush and be aggressive in the offensive zone?

So far, the answer has been a surprising, “No.” Ristolainen has just four points in 12 games, despite averaging over 26 minutes of ice time per game. If he continues to produce at this rate, Risto will finish the season with just 27 points – just .33 PPG. In all honesty, Ristolainen looks LESS interested in jumping in on the attack than ever before, which certainly does not bode well for a Buffalo Sabres team that cannot. Score. Goals.

There are still 70 games left on the schedule, and lots of time for Housley to figure out his players’ strengths and weaknesses. Maybe by the midway point of the season, Housley will favor players such as Antipin, Casey Nelson (remember him?), and even Brendan Guhle over skate-in-cement players such as Tennyson and Josh Gorges. And maybe Risto will finally be given a linemate who plays to his strengths so he can get back to his scoring ways. Either way, Phil Housley has some hard work ahead of him.