The Young And The Restless

The Buffalo Sabres Look To An Icon From The Past To Lead Youth Movement Into The Future
By: 
Bill Hoppe

Jack Eichel knows his hockey history. So, while Phil Housley may have retired almost 15 years ago, the Buffalo Sabres young star appreciates his new coach's illustrious playing career.

Sometimes, Eichel sees Housley like any fan would, as a Hall of Fame defenseman and one of the greatest players to ever lace up the skates.

"He's one of the best hockey players of all time, one of the best Americans of all time," said the North Chelmsford, Mass., native. "I mean, he had over 1,000 points as a defenseman in the NHL. If you look at the things he did in our game, it's pretty remarkable."

So, when Housley, who starred eight seasons for the Sabres, addresses his team, Eichel tries to soak in every word.

"I'll just kind of sit back and think about the things he's accomplished in his hockey career and just appreciate it," Eichel said. "Not a lot of players have done what he did. Just to have him as a resource for us is pretty great. We're lucky to have him as our coach right now."

Housley, of course, is lucky to have Eichel, a 21-year-old center on the cusp
of superstardom.

The two Americans are at front and center of the Sabres' youth movement.

Housley is the rookie coach who has returned to help lead Buffalo back to prominence. Meanwhile, the ultra-talented Eichel, who recently signed an eight-year, $80 million contract extension, is the franchise's cornerstone.

While the Sabres have started slowly this season, there's a feeling in the dressing room the team is built for the modern NHL and also the long haul.

"We have the pieces to win championships, that's what makes me excited," said Sabres' winger Kyle Okposo, a regular for Team USA over the years. "You look at the teams that have won the last 10 years ... they all have No. 1 centermen, they're all good down the middle. They all have defensemen that are horses, and I think that we have them. We have the pieces in place to win for a long time."

Most teams are lucky to have one All-Star-caliber center. The Sabres, with Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly, possess two. On the blue line, they have minute-muncher Rasmus Ristolainen and Americans Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe, one of the league's most underrated young defenseman.

Buffalo has a heavy U.S. presence again this season. Eight Americans-Bogosian, Eichel, McCabe, Okposo, wingers Justin Bailey and Jason Pominville and defensemen Zach Redmond and Matt Tennyson-have played this season or are on the roster. Waiting in the wings is last year's first-round pick, Casey Mittelstadt from Eden Prairie, Minn.

In addition to Housley, who has represented the U.S. as a player and coach at numerous events, the Sabres have Americans Chris Hajt, who grew up in Buffalo and played in the World Junior Championship, and Tom Ward on the coaching staff.

With so many fresh faces on the roster and a new coaching staff and general manager in Jason Botterill, many observers believe the Sabres need a little time to adjust and grow together.

"There's a lot of good players in this room and there's a lot of good pieces," Eichel said. "We're a pretty tight group, so I'm just excited to see what's going to happen when we all grow a little bit more and start to be a more consistent team, get used to each other a little bit more.

"We're pretty tight off the ice as a group. I just look forward to when it translates on the ice."

In the meantime, Housley, who spent four seasons as an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators, has helped keep the Sabres in a good place.

"He brings a good attitude every day, he brings a good energy, and that's what you need," Eichel said. "There's a lot of ups and downs in an NHL season, so you need that type of consistency and positivity every day at the rink."

Eichel has been arguably the Sabres' most consistent player this season. After less than three years in the league, the Boston University product often dominates a game.

But something else inside Eichel makes him a special player.

"He's a tremendous competitor, he wants to win," Housley said. "Deep down, sometimes he takes too much burden on himself, and that's one of the things we're trying to help him with is that he's not alone, this is a team game, no one individual can win a hockey game."

McCabe said Eichel's "competitive nature of wanting to be the best" helps separate him from other players.

"He's always looking at other players, other games," McCabe said. "He's one of those guys who really keeps track of how other guys are doing and he really wants to be the best. 

"It's one of those things that drives him every day, and his bottom line is he just wants to win. ... Everything thing he does, I can't say enough, he really wants to win." 

 

Issue: 
2017-12

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