A welcome site occurred for fans of the Buffalo Sabres as Kyle Okposo took to the ice for the first time nearly in four months. While Da Beauty League might not be the NHL, it provided the right winger with an opportunity to return to the ice in a semi-competitive atmosphere. This is a major step forward for Okposo.
Okposo’s last NHL action came on March 27. He then proceeded to miss the remainder of the season with an undisclosed condition. There was mystery about the issue, as Sabres management did not present many details about his condition. Doctors admitted Okposo to a local hospital and placed in the neurological intensive care unit.
Then-coach Dan Bylsma touched upon the situation in interviews. John Vogl of the Buffalo News reported Bylsma stating, “It’s a difficult thing for him to be dealing with now in this situation.” Bylsma continued, “Very, as a coach and a person, concerned for him and his situation.” Okposo suffered a concussion in 2009 on a hit from Dion Phaneuf.
Vogl cited a report that stated Okposo was admitted to the hospital due to an adverse reaction to medication. The medication was used to treat post-concussion issues. Kris Baker of Sabrespropsects.com shared the following information:
Source tells me Kyle Okposo issue was a reaction to medication he was taking when dealing with concussion and is doing much better. #Sabres
— Kris Baker (@SabresProspects) April 23, 2017
It was not until June 3 that Okposo returned to a Sabres facility, according to an Associated Press report.
What Kyle Okposo Means to the Sabres
Okposo was one of the top free-agent signings of the 2016 offseason. He signed a seven-year, $42 million deal. Bylsma immediately inserted the winger into the top-six forwards on the team, often pairing him Ryan O’Reilly. The right-winger scored 19 goals and earned 45 points on the season, ranking fourth on Buffalo in both categories even though he missed 17 games throughout the season. He was also an alternate captain in his first season with the club.
Okposo’s absence could not be understated. The Sabres went 3-6-1 when he was out with a rib injury. The team won only one of six games when he was ill.
Okposo’s stats might not jump out at you, but he was an invaluable member of the roster on and off the ice. He started over 53 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone. Bylsma used him as a reliable two-way player, leaning on him to make the right play at the correct time. When he and O’Reilly were on the ice together, the team’s five-on-five goals allowed per 60 minutes was 1.51; when they apart, 3.20. His relative Corsi-for and relative Corsi-against were above average on the team, according to statistics from Puckalytics.
Okposo is one of the major pieces to help bring the Sabres out of their rebuilding mode and into a playoff contender. The team missed his leadership, especially at the end of the season.
The Buffalo News reported Bylsma’s thoughts: “He’s developed into and become a big leader in the dressing room.”
Okposo is a veteran to whom teammates look for guidance. Jack Eichel added, “You miss him every day. He’s a leader. He comes to the rink, works hard. He’s a good voice, great player. A good friend of mine, really close with him.” Veteran defenseman Zach Bogosian highlighted his leadership-by-example, stating, “He says the right things. He shows it more.”
Okposo is a veteran player who can help shield some of the Sabres’ young forwards. He is one of the players to put on the ice playing difficult minutes. Bylsma was able to protect some of the younger players by giving the veteran challenging assignments. He was up to the task. Bylsma liked to pair forwards together on lines. Since O’Reilly was on the ice against the opponent’s top-six forwards, Okposo was as well by extension.
A Return to Health
Okposo’s play in the glorified men’s league will give a glimpse into his health. If he can return without relapse, it will be a major relief for the player and team. With Okposo returning to the ice, Sabres fans can look forward to seeing their hard-working winger in training camp in September.
There were many concerns with Okposo’s absence. This is a step in the right direction for Okposo. For Buffalo fans, a player’s summer league action has rarely been so important. Hopefully, his first minutes on the ice will be a preview to a full season of healthy action for Okposo.
Justin DiLoro is a Contributing Writer covering the Buffalo Sabres for The Hockey Writers. He also writes for The Bills Wire SMG covering the Buffalo Bills. He is a life-long sports enthusiast, and he looks forward to writing about the Sabres for their post-tank years. Follow him on Twitter: @jdiloro.