No hockey team at any level of play has ever gotten anywhere without leadership. It’s often difficult to see but is as essential to the game as goaltending and scoring. And though Kyle Okposo doesn’t do much of the latter for the Buffalo Sabres anymore, his value is still immeasurable.
Now a veteran of 16 NHL seasons, Okposo emerged as the undisputed leader of the Sabres at perhaps the most dysfunctional time in the history of the franchise and a time when they could not have needed it more. He allowed them to wipe the slate clean from past drama, and a new era has dawned as a result. The 2022-23 season wasn’t the best of his career, but he played as big a role in Buffalo’s emergence as anyone.
Okposo Developed A New Identity In Buffalo
Kyle Okposo’s seven-year, $42 million contract in 2016 was the biggest free agent signing in Sabres history at the time. But unfortunately, through no fault of his own, he wasn’t able to live up to the hype. A head injury in his first season led to a series of well-documented personal struggles that caused the Minnesota native’s play to decline so much that he soon bore little resemblance to his former self (from ‘Back from the abyss: Kyle Okposo opens up about the darkest days of his life,’ The Athletic, 9/24/2018).
But though he was no longer the same player that had been a stalwart over nine seasons with the New York Islanders, a different side of Okposo emerged with the Sabres. After bottoming out during the COVID-shortened 2021 season, the team began yet another rebuild. And when disgruntled superstar Jack Eichel was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights in November 2021, the Sabres were officially gutted.
Okposo suddenly found himself as the elder statesman of a very inexperienced roster, and he welcomed the challenge. The second-longest serving member of the team behind Zemgus Girgensons, head coach Don Granato named both players as co-alternate captains for that season.
Under his tutelage, the Sabres forged a new hustle and hard work identity and rose in the standings considerably, finishing 11th in the Eastern Conference. Okposo rediscovered himself in the process and recorded 21 goals and 45 points, his highest output in five years. The team acknowledged his resurgence by naming him their nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy at season’s end.
A New Captain
Even though his stock was the highest it had been in quite some time, Okposo’s presence on the Sabres became even more important this season. With the likes of Jack Quinn, John-Jason Peterka and Owen Power coming aboard, Buffalo entered the 2022-23 campaign with an average roster age of 25.6, the youngest in the NHL. Realizing the situation and knowing the team would need a concrete leader this time around, Granato named him the 20th full-time captain in Sabres history this past October. It was a fitting reward for his contributions on and off the ice, and no one could argue his worthiness.
This season was enigmatic for Okposo, who turned 35 after its completion. In terms of scoring, it would be tough not to call it a step back. Fresh off a 2021-22 season in which he looked like a new man and was one of the biggest reasons for the Sabres’ turnaround, his production fell to 11 goals and 28 points this year. It wasn’t a catastrophic drop, and the team’s offense was more than capable of compensating for it, but it was a bit disappointing, nevertheless.
However, like Girgensons, Okposo’s value to the Sabres lies in his character. With so many players learning their way on the fly, the hardworking winger is a perfect blueprint for them to follow, and it’s obvious how much they’ve learned from his example. He continued to showcase his trademark hustle, and his reliable two-way play gave the team a major boost in an area where they struggled all season long.
He also persevered through injuries, most notably from an elbow to the head from Erik Cernak of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 23 that earned the defenseman a two-game suspension (he had previously been suspended in 2019 for elbowing Rasmus Dahlin). Along the way, he did manage a few offensive highlights, most notably on Dec. 29 when he recorded his first hat trick with the Sabres and first since 2016 when he was with the Islanders.
Okposo’s Future With Sabres Brings Intrigue
The Sabres ultimately finished one point out of the Eastern Conference’s second wild card this season, the closest they’d come to the postseason since their last appearance in the 2010-11 season. Despite the near miss, Okposo expressed confidence in the team’s future in his exit interview. But will the captain still be on board for it?
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This season was the last of that blockbuster contract, and general manager Kevyn Adams has a decision in front of him. Does he re-sign the embattled captain and keep his benevolent presence on the growing team, or does he move on to free up a roster spot for one of the franchise’s many up-and-coming talents? There’s an argument to be had for both, and Okposo isn’t only one facing the scenario, as Girgensons and Tyson Jost are also unrestricted free agents (UFAs) come July 1.
Seeing as Buffalo has the likes of Jiri Kulich, Lukas Rousek, Isaak Rosen and others potentially ready to make the jump to the NHL, clearing space for them would seem reasonable. Many players on the team will be in need of new contracts down the line as well, such as Owen Power, who will be on the third year of his entry-level contract next season.
But on the other hand, with a team as young as the Sabres, cutting the most veteran member of the roster wouldn’t make much sense. Adams has a plethora of cap space to work with, and re-signing him to an economical deal would be very easy (especially given that Okposo’s $6 million per year salary is now off the books). He could play in his 1000th NHL game next season, and having him do so in the Buffalo Blue and Gold would be more than fitting, given everything he’s been through in the last seven seasons. But was this season the end of the line as a whole?
According to The Athletic, the 35-year-old is considering all his options this summer, and retiring is not out of the question. After struggling heavily with injuries during his time in Buffalo and with a wife and four children to think about, it would be tough to blame him if he did decide to hang them up (from ‘6 questions for Sabres, Kevyn Adams this offseason: Who’s in net? Victor Olofsson’s future?,’ The Athletic, 4/18/2023).
Final Grade For Okposo
Though the Sabres didn’t get the topline player they thought they were when they signed Okposo, it still very much worked out in their favor. The American guided the team through a tumultuous time in their history, and the positivity and stability he brought opened the door for the next generation. After a decade of constant disappointment and frustration for Sabres fans, it finally seems like the team is back on track, and he deserves as much credit for that as anyone.