The Buffalo Sabres started off this season by stripping the captaincy from former superstar Jack Eichel. By doing so, they were in the market for new leadership, and turned to their most veteran presences in Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons. The two split up the alternate captain letters, as there was no official captain named for the year. Though not explicitly stated, both General manager (GM) Kevyn Adams and coach Don Granato seemed to be on the same page of letting the leaders present themselves as the year went on.
Kyle Okposo took this to heart as he became the “dad” of the team, and took on the responsibility of mentoring the Sabres’ top young talents. While his career in Buffalo has been shaky at best, he has never wavered in his devotion to his teammates. He fought his way through injury and illness over the past many years, and had his bounce back season come this year; a bounce back that was well deserved.
Expectations for Okposo Amidst Big Changes
Coming in to this year, Okposo had struggled to put much on the board offensively. He had been regulated mostly to a fourth-line role, and with his $6-million cap hit there was not much on the ice to expect. In his previous two seasons he scored only 11 goals, but he was a big veteran presence for the younger players every time he was on the bench. His value was down based on numbers, but he had plenty more to offer in lieu of point production. He brought a new energy to the locker room at a time where things were shaky and players were developing, and that is something that is harder to replicate than any point scorer.
After the Sabres’ first game of the season, where they routed the Montreal Canadiens 5-1, Okposo had a very firm-yet-emotional postgame response for the fans. Not only did he express it in his postgame interview, but he wrote a letter that was published for all the fans to see. In it, he set the expectations for both the team and the fans. He made it clear that the new era of Sabres hockey will be one of hard work and dedication. Despite the many years of skepticism from fans and failure by this franchise, Okposo was ultimately a man of his word, and thus changed the culture of the Sabres.
Okposo’s Return to Form Brought Statistical Success
After clearly putting in work over the summer months, Okposo came into the season strong and hungry. Even if the rest of the league was expecting the Sabres to be a bottom feeding team, he was not going to have any part of that. Game after game, he skated with a hustle never seen before. He played with a purpose, other than just trying to win a hockey game. His effort and work got him on the scoresheet most nights and he was one of the Sabres’ most reliable forwards all year.
Scoring wise, Okposo had one of his best as a Buffalo Sabre. He tied his career-high while on Buffalo with 45 points and he set a new high in goals to go along with it by scoring 21. His goal production was good for third on the team behind only Jeff Skinner (33) and Tage Thompson (38), and he was a huge reason for the success of the Sabres second power-play unit. Manning the right side, he made use of his lethal wrist shot from the face-off circle to be second on the team in power-play goals with eight. Only Thompson had more, with 10. All of this coming together was a massive delivery above his expectations to start the season.
Okposo’s Final Grades
While fans were expecting effort and drive, the consistent production from Okposo, combined with his leadership skills, made the season much easier to swallow. In tandem with emerging young gun Thompson, he made use of all of his talents to bring some respect back to the Buffalo Sabres’ name. With that being said, his final grades would look like this:
- Scoring – A
- Playmaking – B
- Leadership – A+
- Defense – B
- Teamwork – A+
Okposo’s steady hand and guidance for the young players meant the difference between them developing or crumbling under the pressure. As a veteran player on the team, he was easily turned to by Granato for pressure situations. He took key face-offs, contributed to clutch situations, and helped lock down games they needed to win. Okposo was an all around package the entire year, and it was one of the best stories to cap off a solid season.
Okposo’s Impact & Future Look
The Sabres’ core is going to look very interesting for years to come, but as they learn to bond and grow together, it is the veteran mentors that will help shape them. Players like Alex Tuch and Rasmus Dahlin took on big roles this year, and have made cases for why they deserve to be a part of the leadership group. Okposo spent a lot of time this season with Dylan Cozens, and had a lot of his habits rub off on him as well. As the presumed leader of the team, Okposo took Cozens under his wing and it adds him to that group of future captaincy candidates because of it. If a captain is chosen next season, it should be Okposo without question.
Moving forward, he has another season left on his contract, and by the time that is over he will be 35 years old. His prime days are behind him, but he still has one more season to leave a key impact. At his age, Okposo may still be hoping to chase a Stanley Cup, but his loyalty to the Sabres may keep him around. The Sabres do have the ability to bring him back after his contract expires, but it will be for far less than his current $6-million cap hit. Should he remain with the team after next season, his new contract should be in the $2.5-million range and for a short term.
It would not be shocking to see Okposo take on a developmental role with the Sabres should he choose to retire after his next contract. He lives and breathes the Sabres and clearly wants to see them win it all, so keeping him around the team as the core players continue to grow together would be a great move by GM Adams. Some former players coach soon after their retirement from playing, similar to how Dan Girardi became an assistant coach for Buffalo last season, and Okposo would be a great addition to the coaching staff.
Okposo turned the page to the next chapter of the Buffalo Sabres and will be a key author in how the story will unfold. His dedication and perseverance will be the example for all future players on what it means to be a Buffalo Sabre.