ANAHEIM, Calif. – Nashville Predators assistant coach Phil Housley believes hockey teams should mimic the style he played during his Hall of Fame career.
Housley was one of the top offensive defensemen of his era and a player who championed a free-flowing attacking style with 1,232 points in 1,495 games. This is pretty much what he preaches with the Predators’ prolific defense group – a core that has keyed their run into the Western Conference Final.
Three of Nashville’s top five scorers this postseason – Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Roman Josi – are defensemen.
“Phil has been awesome. Since ‘Day One’ he came in here, I think for a lot of the D he was a similar player as the way he thought the game and I guess thought the game should be played. Just the little things talking with him day-in-day-out the knowledge that he brings,” Ellis said. “Obviously his numbers, his games played, his points all that stuff speak for themselves so it’s easy to listen to a guy like that and take what he has to say and understand it and learn from it.”
When the Predators hired Housley after the 2012-13 season, the team did so to add a different voice to the coaching staff. The group missed the playoffs and finished with the fourth-worst record in the NHL and the organization felt a change was needed.
But Nashville also wanted him to help unlock the potential in both Ellis and fellow young blue liner Mattias Ekholm. At the time, the Preds saw both players in their long-term plans, but the two were struggling to take the next step. Ellis, a 2009 first-round pick, had six points in 32 games in 2012-13 and averaged 16:23 of ice-time per-game.
Ekholm, who was one of the top Swedish defensive prospects, had played three NHL games. He previously made headlines after former coach Barry Trotz called him out following a disastrous debut in his first two games in 2011-12. He went back to Sweden shortly after for the rest of that year.
It has taken some time and patience, but under Housley’s tutelage, both Ekholm and Ellis have turned into legit top defensemen. This past season, Ekholm was a two-way force for Nashville and averaged 23:28 of ice-time with 23 points in 82 games. Ellis notched career-highs with 16 goals and 38 points in 71 games while averaging 23:57 in 2016-17.
“I think anybody that steps in the NHL, especially at the defensive position, it takes time,” Housley said. “Just the reads – knowing who you’re playing against with the players around this league and their characteristics. That takes time, maybe one or one-and-a-half years and then you get into the mix. (Ellis and Ekholm) have earned more minutes each year. They haven’t been given everything and that’s a credit to them. They’ve really worked hard at it, and then now they deserve what they’re getting and you can see the results of their hard work because they are a good group of players and they’re winners and they want to win.”
Housley’s ability to get through to his players has to do with his beliefs as an offensive-minded coach along with his playing résumé. Nashville’s blue liners like how Housley preaches an attacking style and they admire the fact that he’s one of the game’s all-time greats.
Ekholm and Ellis aren’t the only players who have taken off under Housley. Josi has finished fifth in Norris Trophy voting each of the last two years and had a career-high 61 points in 2015-16.
“He has a great demeanor. He has a good sense of humor. As a player he’s a Hall of Famer and he put up a lot of points,” Nashville radio analyst Chris Mason said. “I just think defensemen want to play that style of play. If you have skill and you can skate, that’s the kind of hockey you really enjoy playing. It’s fun and he encourages that style of play so I think hand-in-hand with the way his experiences have gone and him having that credibility of being that type of player, I think it’s just a really relatable type of player with the defensemen.”
When Housley was brought in after a successful stint as Team USA’s 2013 IIHF U-20 World Junior Championship coach, he was mostly seen as the guy handling the defense and the power play. But his profile has grown as he has gotten a better grasp on the NHL strategies. He doesn’t shrink from responsibilities and enjoys the challenge of trying to get an upper hand on his opponent.
“As the game evolves you have to be willing to change with it, you can’t be stuck in yesterday,” Housley said. “You try to create new things. You try to keep it fresh for the players. I think they like that. It’s not stagnant. You try new things. That’s one of the things I’ve grown to is being willing to change and try to new things.”
From the mid-90s onward, Housley’s playing style was sometimes seen as too offensive for a league that wanted defensemen to become bigger and brawnier. Now NHL teams want more blue liners who play like Housley.
His ability to coach this style could make him a more valuable commodity on the coaching market after Nashville’s run is over. The Buffalo Sabres, where Housley played 608 career games, have a coaching opening as do the Florida Panthers.
Both teams have young elite defensemen (Rasmus Ristolainen with the Sabres and Aaron Ekblad with the Panthers) that could use some help in getting to next level. But at the moment, Housley’s focus is more on Nashville and delivering a Stanley Cup to the Predators. He has never won that championship and if he earns a ring, he’ll likely have more opportunities moving forward. If he doesn’t he has still cemented himself as one of the top assistant coaching minds in the league and someone who can get through to today’s player.
“(Our defensemen are) willing and eager to learn and get better. That’s what I appreciate,” Housley said. “They’re making my job look easy right now because of their maturity and their development and now you’re seeing their potential.”
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